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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Center for Art Collection Ethics

Ellingen Stash Bowl, Pueblo of Zuni

Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Center for Art Collection Ethics

Nearly every week, a news headline announces the latest lawsuit over a valuable work of art. An heir of Holocaust victims sues a museum over a painting stolen by the Nazis. An antiquities-rich country sues a dealer or gallery over objects plundered by profit-seekers. Indigenous peoples claim sacred objects looted by amateur archaeologists and donated to art museums. Often, the objects have been sold multiple times before reaching the current owner, complicating legal and ethical dimensions of the disputes.

In an effort to increase awareness of these issues and promote art provenance (ownership) research training, the University of Denver has established the Center for Art Collection Ethics (ACE) in the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences.

Photo Credits:
American soldier inspects German loot stored in a church at Ellingen, Germany, April 24, 1945. Courtesy of National Archives at College Park, MD.
Bowl, Pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico. Courtesy of University of Denver Museum of Anthropology.


Elizabeth Campbell photo
April 3, 2018

Welcome to the Center for Art Collection Ethics

Welcome! You’ve landed on the news blog of the newly established Center for Art Collection Ethics (ACE) within the Divisions of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Denver. Click the above link to learn more about our mission and programs.

Elizabeth Campbell, Director

Picking Peas
Oct 9, 2018

Progress for Spoliation Victims in France

An appeals court in Paris confirmed on Tuesday that a Pissarro painting loaned to the Musée Marmottan Monet by an American couple will remain in France. A lower court had ruled last November that the current owners, Bruce and Robbie Toll, must relinquish the painting to the French heirs of Jewish businessman Simon Bauer, a victim of anti-Semitic plunder under the Vichy regime. The Tolls argued that they had purchased the picture in good faith at Christie’s auction house in 1995 and should not be held responsible for crimes of the collaborationist French government. They have vowed to appeal the latest decision to the highest French court, the Cour de Cassation.

The 1887 painting, La Cueillette des Pois (Picking Peas) was among 93 paintings in Bauer’s collection when he was arrested in 1944 and detained at the Drancy internment camp. While he was imprisoned, French authorities confiscated the collection and authorized art dealer Jean-François Lefranc to sell it on the booming wartime art market. The Pissarro painting then changed hands multiple times before the Tolls purchased it in 1995 for $800,000.

The Tolls loaned the painting to the Marmottan in 2017 for a major Pissarro retrospective, where Bauer’s 88-year-old grandson, Jean-Jacques Bauer, identified it. Jean-Jacques pursued legal action against the Tolls in early 2018, prompting French authorities to impound the painting at the Musée d’Orsay. The lower court ruling found that an ordinance of 21 April 1945 nullifying the seizure of assets under the German occupation applied to the Pissarro painting, making any subsequent buyer a “possessor in bad faith.” Following Tuesday’s court of appeal ruling, Bauer family attorney Cedric Fischer said the decision confirmed the “right of victims of acts of barbarity committed by the Vichy regime to recover, without a time limit, the goods they have been dispossessed of.”

Photo Credit: Pissaro's Le Cueillette des Pois. Retrieved from

October 18, 2018

The University of California system pursues greater compliance with NAGPRA 

California governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law a measure that requires the University of California system to ensure compliance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The law creates a systemwide repatriation oversight commission that will consult with the State of California Native American Heritage Commission, a nine-member body appointed by the governor. The new measure also provides for two audits to ensure ongoing compliance across the UC system.

Students from several UC campuses lobbied for the bill in Sacramento, citing a need for greater transparency and more consistent adherence to NAGPRA regulations. The challenge of implementation remains, but it is a promising measure that recognizes the importance of Native heritage and the responsibility of Universities to conserve ethically and, when warranted, repatriate.


Photo Credit: UCLA's campus. Retrieved from

Arc of Triumph
October 25, 2018

The Impact of ISIS Art Trafficking

The Syrian government recently put on display in Damascus some 500 objects that had been plundered during the country’s brutal civil war. ISIS has been the worst offender in the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, destroying artifacts and historic sites in territories of the short-lived caliphate, such as the monumental Arch of Triumph in the ancient city of Palmrya. They also beheaded 82-year-old Syrian archeologist Khaled al-Asaad, a world renowned expert who served as the city’s head of antiquities for forty years, after failing to extract information from him on rumored stores of hidden gold.


Photo Credit: Arc of Triumph, Syria. From

Thai Repatriation
November 19, 2018

Thailand claims works from U.S. museums

As France, Germany and Britain grapple with repatriation demands from former colonies and other territories they once controlled, the United States is investigating claims from Thailand. In February 2018, after a year-long probe into missing objects, the Thai Minister of Culture, Vira Rojpojchanarat, called for the return of 23 artifacts from major U.S. museums. The claim widened on November 1, when the Thai government announced it would seek a total of 705 looted artifacts from museums in the United States and Australia. Thailand provided photographs and documents to bolster its claim that the disputed objects were looted from temples and archeological sites. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is now studying the documents.

The claimed works include two 11th-century stone lintels held by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and an 8th-century Buddha statue in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Other institutions impacted by the claim are the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, holding ten items under investigation, and the Honolulu Museum of Art, which holds fourteen disputed objects, including a bronze prehistoric bell and Buddha statues from the Dvaravati and Ayutthaya eras (6th to 11th and 14th to 18th century CE, respectively).


Photo Credit: 11th Century Stone Lintel. Retrieved from

National Museum Brazil
September 27, 2018

The Quiet Vulnerability of Museums

In a recent piece in The Conversation, Denver Museum of Nature and Science curator Chip Colwell reflected on the tragic lessons learned from the fire at the National Museum of Brazil. As Colwell points out, we like to think of museums as secure havens for artistic and cultural heritage. The buildings’ architecture often conveys timelessness—think of the neoclassical columns and dome of the U.S. National Gallery of Art.

Yet museums require consistent investment and active stewardship. The Brazil fire shocked us into remembering, as Colwell argues, that “collections are never permanently safe.” What was lost ? An estimated 18 million artifacts. The only recordings of now lost populations indigenous to South America. “ Luzia ,” a 11,500-year-old human skull and the oldest known in the Americas. Traces of local, tribal, and national Brazilian heritage, and a human patrimony common to us all. May those in positions worldwide who oversee the funding of museums recognize the importance of dedicated investment and stewardship.

 Photo Credit: National Museum, Brazil. From