Negotiation in the news: The art of conflict resolution

Two disputes involving European art museums raise questions of ownership, fairness, and rivalry in negotiation.

By on / Conflict Resolution

Appealing to observers

What do you do when you believe you’ve been wronged, the offending party won’t talk to you, and you have no legal recourse? For many people, the answer is . . . go public.

That’s what the world-renowned art museum the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, did in January to try to draw attention to its attempts to reclaim a work of art stolen during World War II and in the possession of a German family. The 18th-century Vase of Flowers by Dutch master Jan van Huysum has been difficult to recover because of a German law that puts a 30-year statute of limitations on legal claims for stolen property, according to the New York Times.

In 2018, the German family that has the painting tried to sell it back to the Uffizi, reportedly for about $567,000. “We’re trying to get the German family to understand that we are not in a legal position to buy something that according to Italian and international law we already own,” Uffizi director Eike Schmidt, who is German, told the Times.

With the Italian authorities unable to get satisfaction from the German government, Schmidt has taken the dispute to the court of public opinion. On January 1, the Uffizi posted on its website a video showing Schmidt hanging a black-and-white photo of Vase of Flowers in the Pitti Palace, where the painting used to be hung, with the word stolen surrounding it in red letters in Italian, English, and German. A caption informs the public that the work was taken by German soldiers and is now held by a German family. The Uffizi also posted a lengthy “appeal to Germany for 2019” by Schmidt on Twitter.

The campaign may prove effective, but some call it hypocritical. Like Germany, Italy has been criticized for being slow to return Nazi-looted art that hangs in its museums.

Dealing with a new partner

Personnel changes can lead a trusting trade relationship to deteriorate in a flash, as Paris’s Louvre Museum found in recent negotiations with Italian counterparts.

In 2017, Louvre directors asked Italian museums to loan several masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci to help round out the Paris museum’s planned 2019 exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the great Renaissance master’s death. In return, the Louvre reportedly agreed to loan works by Raphael for a 2020 Rome exhibition marking 500 years since that Italian master’s death.

But the trade was in doubt after Italy’s new populist government took power in June 2018. Lucia Borgonzoni, the new undersecretary for Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and a member of the hard-right League party, told the Telegraph that the deal was “one of the biggest, most shameful acts of the previous government with regard to cultural heritage.” For the trade to be fair, according to Borgonzoni, France should be loaning something of equal value during Leonardo’s anniversary year. “Leonardo was Italian, after all,” she said. “Why don’t they loan us the Mona Lisa?”

Borgonzoni said her ministry had taken over negotiations from museum directors and was working to cancel the loans. The new anti-globalist regime in Italy also has picked fights with pro-European French president Emmanuel Macron on migration and trade, according to the Times.

At least one Italian curator said the spat over the Leonardos was much ado about nothing. Uffizi Gallery director Eike Schmidt said his museum had never agreed to loan the Leonardo masterpieces requested in 2015 because they were too fragile. The only major work scheduled to go to the Louvre is Leonardo’s La Scapigliata, from the National Gallery of Parma, whose director called the brouhaha “a total Italian soap opera.”


3 guidelines for artful conflict management:

  • 1. Think twice before going public. It’s tempting to take a private dispute public when you’re getting no satisfaction. But be aware that doing so often only escalates the conflict and can make the other party less likely to back down.
  • 2. Look in the mirror. Don’t expect your counterpart to meet demands you aren’t willing to meet yourself. Live up to your own responsibilities and ethical standards before taking the moral high ground.
  • 3. Anticipate personnel changes. If there’s a possibility your negotiating counterpart could be replaced (as there almost always is), try to formalize existing deal terms so you won’t have to start over from square one if someone new takes over.

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