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Published: Sunday, 3/6/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago

Sweet ending

FOR much of human history, one of war's basic rules was: To the victor belongs the spoils. In many parts of the world, that's still the case. But there is a growing sentiment that victory in war does not justify looting the treasures of the vanquished.

And so a porcelain sea nymph is on a journey from the Toledo Museum of Art to Germany's Dresden Museum, from which it was stolen more than six decades ago. The Nereid Sweetmeat Stand was part of a 3,000-piece set of dinner plates, bowls, tureens, and other pieces called the Swan Service.

The set, created in the mid-18th century, was on loan to the Dresden Museum, which hid it behind a castle wall in 1942 for protection. Soviet soldiers discovered the hiding place in 1945, destroying most of the porcelain pieces and "liberating" some 500 others as spoils of war.

In 1956, the Toledo museum bought the 14-inch candy stand for less than $10,000 from a New York art dealer who had obtained it the previous year from a European dealer. How the European dealer got it, only the sea nymph knows, and she's not talking.

The porcelain nereid sat quietly in the Toledo museum's collection for more than 50 years. But when a special agent from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement compared X-rays of the piece in 2010 with photos from the 1930s, the jig was up.

Now, with the help and blessing of Toledo museum officials, the piece is going back where it belongs. Many other historical, artistic, and cultural treasures looted during war or appropriated by colonial overlords have similarly been returned to their original homes in recent years.

Last year, Yale University reached an agreement with Peru to return thousands of artifacts excavated from the Inca city of Machu Picchu by a Yale professor nearly a century ago. But thousands more artworks, such as the so-called Elgin Marbles that the British Museum contends it legally owns, remain in dispute.

Officials of the Dresden museum believe that 500 pieces from the Swan Service may still be in Russian hands. But bureaucrats in that country have stonewalled attempts to find out what has survived from the collection.

The attitude that armies can routinely rape and pillage the places they conquer has been abandoned by most -- but not all -- nations. Returning treasures obtained by conquest can make a clean break with that past.

Russia, and others, could learn from the Toledo Museum of Art's example.

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