Museums and Monsieur Felix

Charly Wilder, in his New York Times article “When a Visit to the Museum Becomes an Ethical Dilemma,” highlights the challenges museums face in the 21st century as they decide whether to repatriate artifacts.

The following key words from the article are predictable when writing about this topic: responsibility, trove, story, theft, significance. There are weightier words, too, like “problematic provenance” and “rightful owner” and “contested holdings.” Together, these terms tell a tumultuous tale: things of great value have ended up in the wrong places.

In the movie Charade, Audrey Hepburn’s character realizes that three rare postage stamps worth a fortune have been lost when her friend’s son trades them for a miscellaneous collection of low-value stamps with Monsieur Felix, a stamp dealer. When Hepburn’s character tracks down Mon. Felix and asks him about the stamps, he must admit they are not his, and he does so by graciously saying “For a few minutes they were mine. That is enough.”

Is it too much to ask that museums adopt the same attitude? They have held objects like the Benin bronzes or looted paintings by Egon Schiel far longer than a few minutes and have experienced the thrill of displaying them. That is enough.

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