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Fall 2022

Odesa, Ukraine: An Appeal to Save A City’s Cultural Heritage, and Perhaps the City Too In a pre-recorded video presented to UNESCO’s executive board this October 11, 2022, President Volodynyr Zelensky of Ukraine made a formal application for the organization to recognize the Ukrainian port-city of Odesa as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Odesa, home to the historic Odesa Opera House, a stairway to the harbor featured in 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, and a controversial statue of Catherine the Great, has been bombed several times by Russia since its initial invasion of Ukraine this year, posing a threat not only to residents of Odesa, but to several cultural and historical landmarks in the city. In his message to UNESCO, Zelensky asked two things of the organization: to fast-track the process of granting Odesa World Heritage status, and to expel Russia from Unesco as a means of denouncing Russian actions towards Ukraine.

UNESCO representatives have stated that Zelensky’s appeal “marks confidence in UNESCO’s protection mechanisms.” Indeed, once a site is declared part of the World Heritage Site list, the site becomes protected under Geneva convention against destruction during a war. There are currently 1154 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, seven of which are in Ukraine. If Odesa were added to the list, it would mark the eighth site of cultural history in Ukraine protected by UNESCO against Russian attacks.
Tagore’s Art Under Nazi Regime: A Lost Legacy. Five artworks painted by Rabindranath Tagore, a revered Indian poet and Nobel laureate, have been lost to history due to the Nazi regime’s crackdown on modern art. Painted in vibrant inks and gouache, these pieces featured birds, humans, and a girl in a red robe. Notably, these artworks secured a place in a prominent Berlin museum after Tagore gifted them to Germany in 1930. Tragically, the Nazi regime later purged these pieces, considering them “degenerate” in line with their campaign against modern art. Hitler’s vehement distaste for post-impressionist art led to the removal of over 16,000 artworks, including those by notable artists like Van Gogh. The reason behind Tagore’s paintings being targeted remains speculative, with art historians suggesting that their modernist nature made them easy targets for demonization. Tagore’s strong presence in Germany during his visits and his contribution to modern art were celebrated until the Nazi purges erased their significance. Though some of his paintings were eventually returned or located, others remain lost, representing a poignant episode in the history of art and cultural censorship. Tagore’s artistic journey, marked by prolific creativity and innovative expression, was sadly impacted by the tragic turn of events under Nazi influence.

Is AI really art? Getty Images has banned the upload and sale of images generated by using AI art tools such as DALL-E, stating that there are pressing copyright concerns and unaddressed rights issues related to imagery, metadata and subjects contained within the illustrations. While the creators of AI image generators state that the technology is legal, there is no guarantee that this status won’t be contested. AI and machine learning applications sample other artists’ and therefore reference thousands of pieces of work from other artists to create AI-derivative images. Getty images will rely on users to identify and report such images generated by AI to remove them, though there it will be challenging to enforce the ban.

UK clearing out money laundered property? Labour-run Westminster Council in London is exploring whether compulsory purchase powers can be used against the owners of luxury houses who fall behind on their council tax. Westminster’s suggestion is that these multi-million pound properties could be turned into affordable housing to reduce the 4,000 person waiting list. There is the suggestion that Westminster could expand this power if property was bought with so called ‘dirty money’ as part of a crackdown on money laundering. Since 2016, Russian oligarchs accused of corruption have purchased property in Westminster worth £430 million. The council is currently examining this avenue in relation to a property registered in Seychelles which is in council tax arrears. However, there are transparency issues with regard to property ownership as some such properties appear to be held by untraceable’ shell’ companies and whether they have authority to use compulsory purchase powers in this context at all. Thus, limiting this potential route’s practical impact and how close to realisation it is.

Let’s get physical… or digital? Artist Damien Hirst in collaboration with HENI, an international art services business launched a project to understand the relationships between property and NFTs. Hirst offered 10,000 NFTs from his collection of famous dot paintings for sale. Buyers had the option to either retain the artwork in NFT form or swap it for the physical work. If the choice was to retain the NFT, then the physical work was burned, and if they chose to swap it for physical artwork then the NFT was destroyed. 5,149 buyers chose the physical work and 4,851 retained the NFT. Hirst stated that this might indicate the steady attachment for physical work over digital art, and that he himself found it tougher to burn the paper as opposed to the NFT.

(Not) Getting back the Guelph Treasure. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit filed by the heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art-dealers against a German museum foundation over valuable medieval relics known as Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure. The heirs state that the Guelph Treasure was sold under duress and at a drastic discount in Nazi-era Frankfurt. 42 of the pieces that were sold ended up in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. In 2014, a German arbitration commission ruled that the museum had acquired the collection legitimately and did not need to return the artifacts. As a result, the heirs sued the foundation in the United States. The U.S. District Court stated it lacked jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit and granted the foundation’s motion to dismiss the case, barring an appeal by the plaintiffs.