Posted by Richard on  UTC 2020-05-29 10:44

In a recent comment on our 2017 article Will the real Schubert please stand up? Kerry writes:

How is it that these things [images of Schubert] are even allowed to be bought by private parties? It should be Austrian state institutions that own these and then, yes, actually share them with the public.

Kerry, 2020-05-28 19:37 UTC

Kerry's question raises a matter that is too long for a response in comments but worth some thought.

Private owners

The issue of forcing private individuals (or dealers, for that matter) to sell their treasures to 'state institutions' is a tricky one. Many countries around the world intervene in sales which would take cultural objects of national importance out of their native country. As we noted in the recent case of a portrait by Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557), here and here, government intervention in art sales becomes just another murky swamp.

But what happens between individuals who own something and want to sell it to another private individual is largely unregulated. I think this situation is the least worst option, because I for one certainly don't want the state intervening in such transactions. Such intervention is verging on the forcible confiscation of property – and I hope no one wants that. And then, who judges whether an object is worthy of state intervention (=confiscation)?

Private ownership of artworks is generally a secretive trade. Many buyers at auctions prefer to remain anonymous – if only to keep the burglars away. We only find out about the existence of many objects when they surface at some auction or other.

For those with inherited objects, confidentiality is probably the best policy, too. If you want to sell a piece, questions will inevitably asked about its provenance and they in turn might open a can of wriggling worms for the owner. This website grumbles frequently about items being 'lost' – for once 'lost', it is unlikely that any current owner will declare them 'found'.

Another – much more innocent – example came to light recently in Oliver Woog's book about the Schubertians in Atzenbrugg, which we reviewed here. The letters and journal and some paintings concerning the interesting life of Maximilian Joseph Gritzner are in the possession of one of his family members. If Oliver Woog had not invested the shoe leather in turning up these documents, we would still be ignorant of this interesting story of a life lived in the turmoil of 19th century European politics. As it is, everything remains in the possession of the individual concerned and has yet to be properly transcribed and made accessible.

With works of art, venality knows no limits, particularly Austrian venality. As the Austrian musicologist Michael Lorenz pointed out in 2014, the entry for Schubert in the Viennese Death Records is a typewritten copy of the death notice as it appeared in the Wiener Zeitung (with all its deficits). The copy was made to replace the original page, which was neatly cut out with a razor. The same thing happened to the entry for Beethoven. If you currently have either of these pages in your drawer of memorabilia you would be very unwise to publicise that fact.

Lorenz also drew our attention to the mysterious case of some manuscripts and objects, which were at one time in the catalogue – and presumably in the possession – of the then Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek and which in recent years seem to have been bought back by the library from a dealer for a substantial sum. Lorenz's questions about the buy back of the objects which were supposedly already in the library's possession have never been answered satisfactorily.

Public owners

Such things will always happen where humans are involved. But the greatest sinners are the museums and galleries who hoard their treasures. If you are lucky – a modest luck, though – they will let you glimpse a small, low-resolution image online. If you are really, really lucky it won't have a watermark or be disfigured in some way.

Such institutions like to hide behind the current, idiotic copyright laws. It is bad enough that a work remains in copyright generally for 70 years after its creator's death, a measure which was introduced principally to give publishers the ability to monetise an artist's works for a profitable period.

We have noted on several occasions here and here that this also keeps the artist's work off the internet for 70 years. It is no service to the decomposing artist and his or her mostly decomposing children. The great names survive this purdah, the small just go into oblivion. It is the institutional equivalent of stuffing an artist's work into a drawer and only giving a fleeting glance at it to your dinner party guests. Most readers will have their own lists of the good, the bad and the ugly organizations.

But strictly speaking, for a work in the field of the visual arts, even the photographer who documents the artwork has copyright over that photographic image – for 70 years after death.

Many museums and galleries have seen the light and created digital collections and made high resolution images freely available for non-commercial use. The Belvedere Museums in Vienna are a good example of this. The Wien Museum, on the other hand, hoards its treasures as Scrooge McDuck might. Many museums are in the business of pulling in the crowds from the tourist economy to see the relics of imperial Vienna. Unfortunately, this is particularly true of the Schubert-related institutions. Franz has become a marketable commodity. Entry fees, catalogues and postcards are what matter in this game.

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