The art of law

District Court judge Arthur Tompkins talks to NZ Lawyer about his other passion: protecting art during wartime.

District Court judge Arthur Tompkins talks to NZ Lawyer about his other passion: protecting art during wartime.
Art is often a casualty during war, says District Court judge Arthur Tompkins. The reasons for its looting and destruction during armed conflict are varied, and range from an artwork simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, to a soldier coming across something in the rubble that is easily pocketed. Sometimes works were taken or destroyed due to their symbolism.
The best-known example of art crime during war is the Nazis’ systematic plundering of museums, galleries and Jewish collections during the Second World War. “The rough figure from World War II is that somewhere between 40% and 60% remains either destroyed or disappeared, but really it’s anyone’s guess,” Tompkins says.
“Right now a lot of the looting of the art during war is happening in the Middle East, particularly the listed antiquities which are being excavated and then laundered into the antiquities market in order to fund revolutions and civil wars and insurrections,” he says.
“A lot of the Syrian conflict is being funded by illicit excavations of antiquities and then those being exported out. They wash up into particularly America and London, but other antiquities markets as well.”
The legal issues surrounding these art crimes are by no means straightforward. Art is easily transported across borders, and countries often have different rules relating to the recovery of stolen property, which can further complicate attempts to recover works. The other challenge relating to artworks looted during wartime is that records are often sparse and witnesses are missing.
In recent years, Tompkins has observed a far greater willingness on the part of public collections to be proactive in trying to resolve disputes over works. “I think now there’s a much greater willingness to, really, when it comes down to it, just do the right thing,” he says.
Auction houses are also becoming increasingly conscious of the works they sell, and where the provenance of a work is uncertain, collectors are more hesitant to buy into a fight. But despite the change in attitudes, the market for stolen art is huge, and there is still plenty of research to be done.
Since 2010, Tompkins has travelled to Italy each year to teach a course on art crime during war as part of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art’s postgraduate certificate program.  “I have to leave the New Zealand winter at the end of June and go and spend two and a half to three weeks in an Umbrian summer. It’s very difficult,” he jokes.
He has also taught courses on art crime in war at universities in New Zealand.
For the remaining 49 weeks of the year, Tompkins is a District Court judge. His caseload is comprised of criminal and civil matters, and he presides over trials by judge alone and by jury. He is also panel convenor for the New Zealand Parole Board and sits on the Supreme Court of the Pitcairn Islands.
“It’s emotionally satisfying and intellectually stimulating; you’re in direct contact with such a huge range of people … you never quite know what’s going to walk through the door,” Tompkins says of his work. “I still enjoy getting out of bed and going to work in the morning, which is a rare thing, I suspect.”
Although he enjoys the variety and unpredictability of his role, Tompkins admits the work can take an emotional toll, and the decision-making can be relentless. His external research has helped to provide a balance. “The forensic DNA work and the art crime work are very useful in helping me avoid possible burnout. It keeps me interested and it keeps me involved and able to give everything to my main job.”


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