On November 5, 2011, an auction house in England will be selling off John Lennon's tooth.  As Rolling Stone reports, Lennon gave the tooth to his housekeeper for disposal, but then said she could keep it when he found out that her daughter was a fan of his music.  

I see the story as more charming than ghoulish given that Lennon voluntarily surrendered the tooth.  However, I also began to search around for more auctioned body parts and found there is a book on the topic by historian, Tony Perrottet.  According to Perrottet's book, fragments of Abraham Lincoln's skull, Napoleon's penis, Albert Einstein's eyes, and Galileo's finger, among other items, are now housed in museum collections and hidden away with private collectors as well.  The parts were generally stolen during autopsies or from exhumed bodies.  Is it unethical for museums to show such items?  Can the parts be "stolen" if the person is already deceased?  Certainly state criminal codes have something to say about it.  For instance, in the State of Washington, taking a body part from the deceased is a class C felony.  But statutes such as these really only treat the act as a crime against the state, rather than a violation of the deceased. 

Does the public somehow have a right to these sorts of objects, and are we actually enriched by viewing such things?  I can't help but feel it's a questionable practice at best.  
 
 
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I've recently returned from my first trip to Berlin.  During my stay, I visited many museums and galleries, as the city has an astounding wealth of art both new and old.  Nothing was more poignant than my visit to the New National Gallery.  From the outside, the building looks like a giant glass box with a metal roof.  Once you enter, you descend a broad staircase to access the museum's labythintine permanent collection.  As I wandered through a display of expressionist paintings, I was caught in the gaze of two giant eyes, struck immediately by the way the artist had captured the light coming across the somewhat abstracted subject's face.  I was so caught in the gaze, that for a moment I did not notice the lack of color in the painting.  Then I realized I was not looking at a painting at all, but a black and white, life-sized photo print of the piece. Confused, I approached to read the label, where the description of the piece's provenance confirmed my suspicion.  This piece was like many thousands of pieces of art in Germany--deemed "degenerate" by the nazi regime, stripped from German collections, and sold off in the 1930's.  The label on the wall said this piece was now part of a private collection in New York.
As I proceeded through the museum, I saw more and more of these pieces.  In one room, I came upon a tour led by a musuem employee.  He brought the group to a photo of a piece by Franz Marc called Tower of Blue Horses.  He explained to the group that the piece had been labeled "degenerate," shown in the 1937 Degenerate Art Show in Munich, and after changing hands a few times had been lost since 1945.  He said that because they no longer had these pieces that they "could only show the shadows," referencing the large scale black and white print of this beautiful piece.  I felt my heart sink, somewhat overcome by the tremendous sense of loss he expressed.
While I have been a strong proponent of returning stolen and illegally exported works to their source nations, I've never once considered this scenario, where the government actually used the law to redefine the aesthetic of a country and culture.  Hitler labeled such movements as dadaism, expressionism, bauhaus, cubism, and fauvism, among others, as degenerate, allowing the works to be sold off and destroyed, marking the artists for life and destroying many of their careers along the way.  I noted how often I recognized the styles but not the names of artists in this collection.  Looking back over 70 years later, I am only now beginning to see this side of the tragedy for Germany itself.  Considering the works were legally sold based on the laws of Germany at the time, does anything--law, morals, or otherwise--justify a return of such works to Germany?  Or are the works better seen as refugees, lucky for their escape?  I really don't know the answer, but feel compassion for the loss...