The art world has seen a surge in cultural patrimony cases in recent months as countries work to build bridges by returning significant works to their homelands.
This is an unfortunate aspect of the art world that we have created, albeit one that the New York-based Creative Time never thought they would have to confront. Creative Time is a public art institution that helps contemporary artists realize their weirdest and wildest dreams, turning entire buildings into musical instruments or creating signs for Coney Island merchants.
On Tuesday, a series of ornamental dishes were confiscated from Creative Time, for apparently being the one-time property of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. According to Iraqi officials, the plates were taken out of Iraq illegally. Creative Time originally bought the plates on eBay for artist Michael Rakowitz, who used the dishware for his fine-dining performance piece, "Spoils."
Rakowitz collaborated with Manhattan restaurant Park Avenue Autumn to create a venison-and-date-syrup entree that guests could perceive as loot from an unnecessary war or the culinary trophy for crushing a foreign dictatorship.
However, in late November the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations got wind of the plates and through a series of inquests, formal notifications were sent to Creative Time and the restaurant, claiming that the plates rightfully belonged to the Iraqi people.
Creative Time reportedly paid $200 to $300 per plate from two sellers, one is thought to be a former American soldier while the other is an Iraqi refugee currently living outside of Detroit. Creative Time immediately complied with the State Department's request to return the plates.
"We told them that we would be delighted to return the plates because we couldn't have imagined a better end to this project," said Anne Pasternak, the president and artistic director of Creative Time, who was present for the removal of the plates. "We thought that this would provoke the kind of discussion that's now happening, but we thought it would happen at the beginning of the project, when people were eating off them, not at the end."