Uncle Sam Wants His Art Back

Claims for the repatriation of cultural properties illegally removed from their countries of origin are succeeding with greater frequency. As a result, several major artworks from prominent American museums and collections are on their way back to Europe, making bold headlines in the process. Less well publicized are our own federal government's efforts to claim tens of thousands of American artworks, which have been in the stream of commerce for over 60 years.

As part of the U.S. government's Works Progress Administration in Depression era America, the Federal Art Project employed thousands of artists. To this day WPA-commissioned sculptures, mosaics and murals can be seen in state houses, post offices and libraries throughout the country. The more portable WPA artworks, such as paintings and prints, were often dispersed by default, thrown away, forgotten or taken home by government employees. For decades they have been collected, bought and sold on the open market.

A controversial policy of the U.S. government claims ownership of all works created under the WPA, regardless of how many times they may have changed hands throughout the 20th century. Under the auspices of the General Services Administration, a master catalogue is being produced documenting what the government rightly sees as an important chapter in American art history. The GSA mandates that all WPA artworks discovered at large be placed in the government's Art in Embassies or Artbank programs, or donated to an appropriate museum.

Understandably, for private holders of WPA artworks, the government's policy has caused consternation. While the GSA does not actively rout out WPA artworks in private hands, those that have come to light through auction house catalogues, eBay, and even the Antiques Roadshow on public television, have elicited swift action by the government, including seizure of the subject artwork. Indeed, even if the holder agrees to donate a WPA artwork to a museum, no tax deduction can be claimed, due to the holder's lack of good title to the object.

These developments have yet to sink into the consciousness of most American art collectors. A quick perusal of the world wide web reveals numerous dealers actively buying and selling WPA art. And while I was conducting an estate appraisal recently, the widow of the decedent proudly directed my attention to three paintings, which she had removed from the closet for my benefit. She boasted that they used to hang in her late husband's law office, and that they once belonged to the U.S. government. When I confirmed the WPA labels on the stretchers, I had to inform her: "They still do."

For more information see "WPA Works of Art in Non-Federal Repositories" available at www.gsa.gov.

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