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Should Nazi-looted art be returned?

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In an article in The Art Newspaper in December 2008, the right to restitution of Nazi-looted art was questioned by Sir Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary of London's Royal Academy.  It led to a large number of responses in the press, media and online, many of which oppose his views. 

Among those who responded were Adam Zamoyski, one of the heirs to the renowned Czartoryska-Działyńska Collection at Goluchów Castle in Poland, many of whose looted works of art have not yet been recovered; writers on The Guardian website; and Dr Kwame Opoku, who quoted the following: 

"The public interest must surely be in upholding the rule of law, rather than promoting an international free-for-all through the unrestricted circulation of tainted works of art. Do we really wish to educate our children to have no respect for history, legality and ethical values by providing museums with the opportunity freely to exhibit stolen property?" 
Extract from a letter by several members of the British House of Lords to The Times.

The articles and blogs which have been written in the course of this debate and which appear below include:

1.  The Art Newspaper December 2008
Norman Rosenthal:  The Time Has Come for a Statute of Limitations

2.  The Independent 9 January 2009
Keep looted Nazi art, says Rosenthal

3The Independent Comment 9 January 2009
Adam Zamoyski: Restitution will benefit the public more than the heirs

4.  The Guardian Online 9 January 2009
Jonathan Jones: Should all looted art be returned?


5.  The Guardian 9 January-12 January 2009
Online responses to Jonathan Jones

6.  Dr Kwame Opoku 13 January 2009

Response to Jonathan Jones "Should all looted art be returned?"

7.  The Art Newspaper
22 January 2009

Responses to Norman Rosenthal

8.  Response of David Lewis, Co-chair, Commission for Looted Art in Europe to Norman Rosenthal's Art Newspaper article, 16 December 2008

 


TEXTS

 

1.  The Art Newspaper December 2008
Norman Rosenthal:  The Time Has Come for a Statute of Limitations


Since the late 1990s there has been a strong push towards provenance research of collections and museums, and restitution of items that were looted or taken by the Nazis during their period of power in Europe from 1933 to 1945. This process has been ongoing for ten years, and the items in question have often been claimed by people distanced by two or more generations from their original owners.

I have, perhaps, an idiosyncratic, non-politically-correct view that many people will disagree with, but I believe history is history and that you can’t turn the clock back, or make things good again through art.

History has always looked after works of art in strange ways. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, because of its value, art has been looted and as a result arbitrarily distributed and disseminated throughout the world. Of course, what happened in the Nazi period was unspeakable in its awfulness. I lost many relatives, whom I never knew personally, and who died in concentration camps in the most horrible of circumstances. I believe, however, that grandchildren or distant relations of people who had works of art or property taken away by the Nazis do not now have an inalienable right to ownership, at the beginning of the 21st century. If valuable objects have ended up in the public sphere, even on account of the terrible facts of history, then that is the way it is.

If, because of provenance research, works of art are taken from museums, whether in Russia, Germany, France, the US or the UK, and are then sold on for profit or passed around for political expediency, it is nearly always the rich who are making themselves richer. The vast majority of individuals, who were beaten up or killed during the Nazi period—or indeed by other oppressors in different parts of Europe—did not have art treasures that their children and grandchildren can now claim as compensation. The concept of the “universal museum” is also, in certain circumstances, a politically useful euphemism. Nonetheless, it has to be good that important works of art should be available to all through public ownership. Restitution claims from museums go against this idea and result in the general culture being impoverished.

The outgoing director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, was forced to send the Metropolitan Euphronios vase back to Italy earlier this year. This begged the question, does Italy really need another vase by this artist, when there are others? Italy has so many great objects of this kind that one piece, however outstanding, makes little difference. To the best of my knowledge, this vase is not even on public view at the moment. At the Metropolitan, however, it could quite easily have inspired young people to get involved in, or spend their lives with, classical culture.

There is much market-driven hypocrisy buried within the subject of restitution. The art market encourages restitution from museums, which is particularly cynical and unpleasant—it is well known that lawyers and auction houses are trying to drum up trade in this way. Auction houses, the trade and the high value of works of art all have legitimate functions, but this kind of provenance activity does not reflect well on the world of art. It is like a microcosm of what is going on in the wider world—for instance, the illegitimate selling of sub-prime mortgages that has now caused such deep financial trouble around the world.

There are those who will disagree. They will say that Germany can’t be punished enough for what took place between 1933 and 1945. It goes without saying that what the Nazis did was a stain for all time on the reputation of a culture and a country. But that stain cannot be cleansed by the restitution of master works from museums. After all, neither Rembrandt nor Klimt were responsible for those political crimes.

There should now surely be a statute of limitations on this kind of restitution. If we were still in 1950 and the people who owned the Manet or the Monet were still alive, then it would surely be correct to give these paintings back, but not now and not to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The world should let go of the past and live in the present. Of course, the best of the past needs to be looked after, but we should not be overly obsessive about the worst of the past—it is not useful either to individuals or society as a whole. Each person should invent him or herself creatively in the present, and not on the back of the lost wealth of ancestors.

The writer was exhibitions secretary of the Royal of Arts, 1977-2008. This piece was based on a discussion with William Oliver Academy.

 

2.  The Independent 9 January 2009

Keep looted Nazi art, says Rosenthal


Former
Royal Academy
secretary speaks out against returning stolen works
He is a child of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe who has risen to become a leading light of Britain's art establishment. But Sir Norman Rosenthal, the former exhibitions secretary of the Royal, has risked alienating the Jewish community by speaking out against returning Nazi art plunder to the descendants of their owners.  Academy

 

Writing in The Art Newspaper, Sir Norman said it was time to put an end to restitution and allow museums to keep hold of plundered artwork. He suggested it was better for such treasures to stay in public collections rather than return to the descendants of owners, many who have long since died. Sir Norman said the Washington Declaration of 1998 which committed 44 countries to search for plundered Nazi art and return it to its owners needed to be revisited.

 

"This process [of research and restitution] has been ongoing for 10 years and the items in question have often been claimed by people distanced by two or more generations from their original owners," he said. "I believe history is history and that you can't turn the clock back or make things good again through art. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, because of its value, art has been looted and as a result, arbitrarily distributed and disseminated throughout the world.

 

"Of course, what happened in the Nazi period was unspeakable in its awfulness. I lost many relatives whom I never knew personally, and who died in concentration camps in the most horrible of circumstances. But I believe grandchildren or distant relations of people who had works of art or property taken by the Nazis do not now have an inalienable right to ownership, at the beginning of the 21st century."

 

But Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate Galleries and chair of the National Museum Director's Conference, a working group examining the spoliation of art during the Second World War, said: "Spoliation has been under intensive discussion only for the past 10 years, since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998. I think it would be premature to impose a moratorium now but at some point in the future this may be appropriate."

A statement by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which created an independent spoliation advisory panel in 2000, said: "We believe that, where a work of art can be proved to have been looted in the Nazi era, the wishes of the heirs of the original owners should be respected and, where possible, the work returned or appropriate amends made. This is a simple, right and fair way of righting historic wrongs, and we have no plans to resile on our commitment."

 

Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said Sir Norman was "out of touch", and added: "It is illegal to steal or to loot and this rule of law is fundamental to a free society. In what Norman Rosenthal writes, he seeks to reach a new understanding of what is right and wrong."

taraniri wrote online:
Tuesday 3 February 2009

Where is the justice in not returning stolen property to the proper owner? When you consider the nature of the injustice, how it was a state sponsored plundering of property and the murder of the bulk of the property owners...the mind boggles at the thought of it. To suggest, justice and restitution should not be allowed is just uncivilized!

 


3.  The Independent Comment 9 January 2009
Adam Zamoyski: Restitution will benefit the public more than the heirs


I am entirely with Norman Rosenthal when he says that it is a little late for restitution of Nazi loot and that the issue should be laid to rest after all this time.

As he says, history is history, and a line does have to be drawn somewhere. The only problem is, where? Many direct victims of Nazi looting tried to reclaim their property in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But they came up against a wall of dishonesty and contempt on the part of collectors, auction houses, museum curators and dealers, who ducked and delayed in the hope that the problem would go away.

In many cases, that is still their attitude, and the reason claims are still being brought. If justice had been done then, there would be no cause for revindication now. Nor is it entirely fair to say, as he does, that the claimants are all rich people: many are living in very humble circumstances – and most claims are not made for reasons of material benefit.

As one of the heirs to the Czartoryska-Dzialynska Collection at Goluchów Castle in Poland, I can assure Rosenthal that our primary aim is to try to recreate that extraordinarily rich and interesting collection.

The material advantage to us would be negligible. The winners would be the art world and the public; the only losers would be the vaults of museums throughout Europe and a few dealers and collectors who know they are in possession of stolen goods and cannot respectably sell them, or even show them.

Adam Zamoyski is a distinguished historian living in London who has recovered only a few of the hundreds of works of art that were stolen from his family's collection in Poland by the Nazis.


4.  The Guardian Online 9 January 2009

Jonathan Jones: Should all looted art be returned?

 

Norman Rosenthal is right to question whether stolen artworks should be restituted at the expense of great public collections. 

Some things seem so obviously moral, so unarguable, that years and decades can pass before they are recognised as folly. What could be more self-evident than the rightness of returning works of art stolen by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s to the heirs of their Jewish owners? Yet nothing in today's art world is more absurd and insidiously destructive. Sir Norman Rosenthal is courageous and correct to speak out against it. The former exhibitions secretary of the Royal, writing in The Art Newspaper, has said that the descendants of Holocaust victims who suddenly discover they are the rightful owners of paintings worth millions of pounds have comparatively remote claims that do not justify weakening public collections. Academy

 

He is right. Visit Austria 's great museums and you can't miss their sad spoliation. One of the most expensive art sales of all time, that of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I in 2006, came about after a court case that led to this crystalline monument to Freud's and Mahler's modern metropolis being removed from the Belvedere museum in Vienna - where it illuminated Vienna's history, and specifically its Jewish history - and "restituted" to heirs of the original owner, who live in the United States. They sold it virtually instantaneously - for a record sum. In reality, the actual details of how this painting came into the Belvedere collection were complicated, and it seems from documents the museum has published that Adele Bloch-Bauer herself always wanted it to end up there.

 

Memory is being vandalised in the name of memory. The history of central Europe, of the matrix of Jewish art collectors and Jewish culture that was so rich and central to European life on the eve of the Holocaust, is obscured, not revealed, by this process. At best, restitution so long after the crime is meaningless. The migration of a very important Venetian Renaissance portrait of Cardinal Bessarion, by Gentile Bellini, from Vienna 's Kunsthistorisches Museum to London 's National Gallery a few years ago raised no eyebrows and stirred little interest - yet it was another case of a work restituted and promptly sold.

 

And what if a "rightful" owner is found for the National Gallery's stupendous Cupid complaining to Venus by Lucas Cranach, recently discovered to have been in Hitler's art collection, perhaps after being looted? Will London have to lose this masterpiece to some wealthy purchaser? Will that make the world a better place?

 

The dark side of restitution became very visible last year, when the Royal 's exhibition of Russian art (and perhaps this experience made Rosenthal think) was menaced by restitution claims. In this case, it is the descendants of Russian art collectors whose collections were nationalised after the 1917 Revolution who want "their" property back. It was amazing how such claims were reported as if their moral case were self-evident. In reality, anyone who has visited the Hermitage in St Petersburg or the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow knows how much good these museums do, what beacons of civility and culture they are, how brutish it would be to weaken their collections - and that is true of all public museums, everywhere. Academy

 

A work of art should never, ever be taken away from a public museum without the strongest of reasons. Making good the crimes of the Nazis may seem just that - but it is meaningless. No horrors are reversed. Instead, historical threads are broken, paintings are taken away from the cities where they have the deepest meaning, and money is made by the art market.

 

5.  The Guardian 9 January-12 January 2009

Online responses to Jonathan Jones

 

·         QuetzalcoatlUK

09 Jan 09, 3:50pm

I'm sorry to have to point this out but art was then and is now a commodity. It is a piece of property to be done with as the owner sees fit.

So. Regardless of the æsthetic, intellectual and cultural merits of a work it is first a thing to be possessed, and as such must be returned to its rightful owners if it had been taken illegally.

It may indeed be sad to see works go from museums but that's just too bad if they are there through acts of theft.

·         willwordsmith

09 Jan 09, 4:08pm

As long as the theft was by "bad guys", restitution was fine.

Theft by the US soldiers in the photo above is not theft, because they're the "good guys".

·         Lokster

09 Jan 09, 4:24pm

willwordsmith,

Do you know the context of the above photograph of American soldiers?

·         montefeltro

09 Jan 09, 4:25pm

Jonathan, the argument you advocate may be popular and may receive large public support, but it is one of the worst evils. You and the rest of the public may well benefit from being able to see Klimt's paintings at your leisure in one of the world's national musea, but there is a greater principle at stake here: the idea that the state can simply, by exercising its monopoly on violence, take away that which belongs to the individual. Any state that does not respect the individual's right to life, liberty and property is evil, whether a large majority of its citizens approve of its actions or not. If public galleries want to continue showing these great works of art to the public, let them pay the market price for them to the private owners or, as is often the case, let them lease the artworks from them, or keep them on loan, if the private owners are happy with such a deal. It is not for you or anyone other than the owners to determine what should happen to these paintings.

·         montefeltro

09 Jan 09, 4:34pm

Your argument rests on the mental disconnect you have made between the act of looting and the public display, due to some time having passed between the two.

Imagine a state telling you today that they are going to loot your house in the name of the great british public, "but it's OK, because a lot of people will get to see the artworks at the new national museum opening next week". This is, in effect, the kind of regime your article supports. Fascism of the worst kind, mister Jones.

·         Silverwhistle

09 Jan 09, 4:38pm

I'm a historian and an art historian, and I think Sir Norman is right, certainly with regard to works taken from private ownership. With the current state of the art market, what we are seeing, as per the Klimt Adele Bloch-Bauer case, is public collections being despoiled for massive private profit.

I'm sure there would have been more sympathy had the family decided to keep the picture as a family heirloom, as their aunt's portrait, or, more generously, offered it back to the gallery for a token sum. But to then put it on the market, after so much effort to retrieve it? Thankfully, it was bought by a private gallery, so is at least still visitable - albeit out of context.

When artworks have been taken from other museums, it should be possible for some kind of shared ownership or to arrange loans and exhibitions between them.

·         Silverwhistle

09 Jan 09, 4:41pm

Montefeltro, Cromwell flogged off Charles I's collection, much of which now graces the Prado in Madrid. Would you seriously advocate seizing those works back?

·         Rattie9

09 Jan 09, 4:47pm

It is my belief that any property taken for any reason during the holocaust or any other catastrophic world event etc., should most certainly be returned to the heirs of the victims or proper owners.

Museums or galleries that wish to publicly show such pieces should purchase them through the proper channels, in order to prove ownership. Anything else would be nothing less than theft.
·         Akka

09 Jan 09, 4:52pm

Jonathan,

You are trying to argue that the general public is suffering as a result of the restitutions. I am sure that it's well meant and you pull all the stops to make your argument work. Nice effort, but it's still a disasterous approach.

If you consider that a piece of art is more valuable than an individual, you are exactly where the Nazis were. If you consider that the right of the public as determined by an art critic is more important than the right of the individual, you are where the communists were.

Even if the immoral and thoroughly objectionable great grand children of the twice removed cousins of the perished rightful owner wanted to burn their restituted Leonardos, we have to hand the paintings over!

A devoted art lover.

P.S. Don't turn your nose at commercialisation of art. That's the type of snooty and naive comment that makes people chuckle at the Guardian reader (writer).

·         dandydon

09 Jan 09, 5:03pm

And how the Duke of Sutherland has gotten away with keeping those Titians for so long, considering the crimes his ancestors committed to gain the wealth in the first place, is beyond me.

·         RaymondJDowd

09 Jan 09, 5:35pm

Museums make claimants spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions in fees to researchers, lawyers, and by their refusal to return stolen property force claimants to enter into contingent fee arrangements with lawyers and researchers who, in turn, must force successful claimants to sell off their family heirlooms to cover their own costs.

Jones blames this vicious cycle on the victims. The public has no interest in showing their children warehouses of stolen property.

Change the laws to award attorneys fees and expenses to successful claimants and you will see Jewish families be able to afford to keep the property that is rightfully theirs. You will also see museums start to be a little more truthful about where they obtained their loot.

What Jonathan Jones and Norman Rosenthal advocate is looting the victims once again and proudly displaying the result. Shame. 

·         StephanoBentos

09 Jan 09, 5:49pm

Should all looted art be returned?

Yes.

Of course it should.

·         Frites

09 Jan 09, 6:18pm

So, here's a thought. All stolen works in the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert are returned to their rightful owners. Then we can do the same with the Louvre. And also the Prado. And also the Met, Pergamon, Hermitage, the US National Gallery.... And let's not forget all of the antiquities stolen from Greece during the Roman empire...

The good news is that so much of the world's resources would be required to effect proper restitution to all of the rightful owners, that the shipping and handling alone would provide enough employment to eleviate our current economic crisis.

·         Liobhan

09 Jan 09, 6:27pm

There are none of us innocent of theft.

Many, perhaps most, British fortunes were originally made in unsavoury enterprises, which looted and exploited *someone*. Should the nobility be forced to repay their oppression of serfs? Should the Crown be forced to give back all those lands and properties held by right of conquest? Should the English people be forced to give back the British Isles to the Picts and go home to whatever Continental steppe their ancestors came from?

Statutes of limitations were designed to quiet title, so that current owners can rst secure in their enjoyment of whatever they happen to hold.

If wrongs were done, let the governments who facilitated or performed them be liable for monetary damages, not holders in good faith generations later.

All this is appears to be rapacious lawyers taking on the easy targets, art museums, chronically underfunded, and letting the real villains, the governments and peoples who committed the crimes in the first place, run off as free as birds, because governments, even sincerely repentant ones, have sharper legal teeth than museums, and might have exacted more concessions.

So their ancestor's possessions were looted. Join the club of all humanity.

·         chrisjwmartin

09 Jan 09, 7:21pm

Property is theft anyway.

·         pennyt

09 Jan 09, 8:15pm

What about the marbles from the parthenon? they would be exhibited where they belong, so the argument that publicly displayed art should never be taken from museums into private hands does not apply here. And yet they are not returned.

·         1988040319

09 Jan 09, 8:50pm

This highlights what the upper-classes and aristocracy are made of, and what our 'rich' society is built on. The wealth in the UK - and across Europe - is so blatantly the result of theft, looting, violence and crime that perhaps art world should be where this is made explicit.

I understand the point about people claiming the pieces, then selling them right away; perhaps something could be done about that? i.e; if a piece of art is restored to you, especially if you are the descendant of its original owner, then you cannot sell the piece on. This would be difficult to regulate at first, but I'm sure, over time, it could be achieved. Such lists exist for stolen and missing works, why not restituted ones?

There is also the problem of museums. For example, I quite like the British, but I am very aware that most of it is not British and the native countries could probably do with having their stuff back. Britain is riddled with double standards and contradictions; if anyone dared come over here and export some valuable findings to another country you can guarantee uproar. But here we are, neatly and imperiously glossing over everything we've nicked. Museum

·         petrifiedprozac

09 Jan 09, 9:05pm

Sadly, art is a commodity with a monetary value, that is ther nature of our culture, it as shallow or as deep as someone's wallet. Wish it was not so. If one piece of art can go back, it all should go back. In fact I think it might be a good thing if everything went back to its original owners or at least, those with the best claim. Art in western culture is not valued by its quality but by the money it can demand. We are blind to everything that isn't defined in monetary terms and since that is the case, we don't deserve great art because we can't recognize it.

·         NYCartist

09 Jan 09, 11:11pm

Yes. Return all stolen art. From museums, galleries. Not just art stolen during WWII, but art stolen from Baghdad, as well as archeological treasures stolen after the US invasion in 2003 (see Robert Fisk's columns on the thefts). Return Greek art to Greece. Have a commission in the United Nations coordinating with the Hague and the European union to sort out which was purchased from a legitimate owner and which has been stolen. Then return the stolen art. (Museums who bought art without proper provenance should have to give it up; museums who were fooled, should apply to their government for financial help.) If individuals can't steal, why should it be OK for museums, governments, galleries to steal. If governments can steal, or museums, why are private thieves who steal from a museum being prosecuted?

·         Chewtoy

09 Jan 09, 11:39pm

Perhaps the circumstances under which Jewish art collectors acquired their collections in the first place should be investigated as well. A lot of dodgy dealings were done off the backs of desperate Russian emigres.

·         CraigPurshouse

11 Jan 09, 7:45pm (about 18 hours ago)

Chewloy you could run with that argument and say that all Van Gough's should be returned to his estate as he was ripped-off when selling his paintings because he was poor. If someone has a valid and reasonable claim to some art then it should be returned i.e they were alive when it was stolen. I don't think distant decendents should get it as they have done nothing to earn it.
Also, has anyone ever seen that episode of The Simpsons where Grandpa Simpson tries to get all those artworks looted in the war only for them to be returned to their rightful owner - a hilarious Eurotrashy German who tells them not to damage his in-car cd player?

·         lroussin

12 Jan 09, 12:35am (about 13 hours ago)

A comment from a colleagure that says it all:

If something can be made right, it should not be left wrong.
Last I checked, history is not an heir in the tree of intestate distribution.

·         heirstypepadcom

12 Jan 09, 5:44am (about 8 hours ago)

Making good the crimes of the Nazis
may seem just that - but it is meaningless.

In my opinion, the art carries the sad truth of the Holocaust, long after the advocacy agencies and museums and memorials wither. There are deniers even now while the survivors exist. Restitution of Nazi Era Looted Art, without limitation, will forever be the witness of the unspeakable genocide of the 20th century.

Furthermore, every time a painting is restored to heirs of pre-Holocaust Jewish owners, we repudiate by the legal process the Holocaust denial movement. Conversely, every time a worthy claim is lost, for whatever reason, and we do not restore the ownership of that object, it's as if there were no criminals or no crimes committed.
Hardly meaningless.

·         guidoriccio

12 Jan 09, 7:28am (about 6 hours ago)

If Mr. Jones discovered last week that his grandparents had owned, say, the two Titians until 1944, when the canvasses had been confiscated by the Nazis, and both paintings later wound up in the Belvedere in Viena, would his and his siblings' families and their children renounce their claim to the valuable works? Not a chance. Even if Mr. Jones himself hewed to his prescribed sacrifice, would he be able to persuade the rest of his family to do the same? Very unlikely. They would sue for the return of the works, sell them at auction, and divide the proceeds among the descendants of the rightful owners. (The need to parcel out proceeds to multiple beneficiaries is one reason artworks almost invariably are sold after recovery; another is because the works are expensive to conserve and insure.) Had Mr. Jones' grandparents not been the victims of theft - and perhaps murder -- they might have sold the Titians themselves or left them to their descendants. Mr. Jones is most magnanimous with other people's lost wealth, but would he be so generous were he the victim?

·         salzberg

12 Jan 09, 10:44am (about 3 hours ago)

This article could be summarized -- chillingly and accurately -- by "The ends justify the means

 

6.  Dr Kwame Opoku 13 January 2009

Response to Jonathan Jones: “Should All Looted Art be Returned?”

 

“The public interest must surely be in upholding the rule of law, rather than promoting an international free-for-all through the unrestricted circulation of tainted works of art. Do we really wish to educate our children to have no respect for history, legality and ethical values by providing museums with the opportunity freely to exhibit stolen property? ”

 

Extract from a letter by several members of the British House of Lords

http://www.timesonline.co.uk 

 

There seems to be a concerted strategy or convergence of tactics by a group of writers who appear determined to subvert the basic principles of law, morality and decency by regularly bombarding the public with ideas which are, in intention and implications, subversive of the present social structure in most societies and against human rights generally. They present us with arguments that are so deficient in logic and substance that one does not know how to respond. Perhaps they are counting on shock effect and numbness on the part of the public so that by the time we realize what they are really trying to achieve it would be too late to respond.

Some days ago we had Norman Rosenthal saying that great grand children and distant relatives of victims of Nazi loot should not be allowed to recover the art works stolen from their relatives. Arguments advanced were that these procedures and litigations have gone on for too long. Moreover, there are many descendants of Nazi victims whose relatives had no art works that could have been seized by the Nazis. A moment’s reflection shows how baseless these arguments are. (http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article.asp?id=16627)

The Germans immediately stated that they have no intention of putting a stop to actions to recover Nazi-looted art works. The German Federal Commissioner Minister for Culture, Bernard Neumann, with a better understanding of the whole problem, pledged that there will be no time limit for descendants of Nazi victims to reclaim looted art. The German Government has rejected calls from some museums to impose deadlines.

Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in London, speaking of museums, said: “There are thousands of looted works in German museums but they have been very reluctant to do anything. They complained that it cost money to research their provenance, because there were so many.”

“The German government had attempted to encourage them by offering one million euros annually. But more than half the money has not been spent, which means the museums are not applying for it.” (http://www.thejc.com/node/10232)

Nicholas Serota, director of Tate Galleries and chair of the National Museum Director's Conference, a working group examining the spoliation of art during the Second World War, has declared: "Spoliation has been under intensive discussion only for the past 10 years, since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998. I think it would be premature to impose a moratorium now but at some point in the future this may be appropriate."

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which created an independent spoliation advisory panel in 2000, has said: "We believe that, where a work of art can be proved to have been looted in the Nazi era, the wishes of the heirs of the original owners should be respected and, where possible, the work returned or appropriate amends made. This is a simple, right and fair way of righting historic wrongs, and we have no plans to resile on our commitment." (http://www.lootedart.com/news.php?r=NFMTO7738801)

We now have Jonathan Jones stating that “Norman Rosenthal is right to question whether stolen artworks should be restituted at the expense of the great public collections”. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/looted-art-norman-rosenthal) In a normal free society, anyone can question anything or fact including his own existence. The right to question is guaranteed by various constitutions and human rights conventions. What is important is the argument or fact advanced to support any claim that certain practice, rule or law should be changed. Norman Rosenthal did not advance any valid argument or fact. Does Jonathan Jones advance any more valuable point? None.

 

We should note first, how a discussion on Nazi-looted art is expanded to cover “all looted art” so that one can bring in examples from the former Soviet Union and other periods which have nothing to do with the specific situation of Nazi spoliation in Europe before and during the last world war.

Jonathan Jones accuses the claimants of Nazi looted art as wanting to weaken public collections: “Sir Norman Rosenthal is courageous and correct to speak out against it. The former exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy, writing in The Art Newspaper, has said that the descendants of Holocaust victims who suddenly discover they are the rightful owners of paintings worth millions of pounds have comparatively remote claims that do not justify weakening public collections.” What kind of logic is this which allows Jones to accuse those pursuing their lawful claims through the normal legal system and other procedures as wanting to weaken public collections? Are the public collections made up solely or mainly of such looted art? If so, the question arises whether we need at all public collections which are based on such weak and illegal basis that any time a claimant presents his demand one has to worry about possible depletion.

 

Jonathan Jones cites as an example of claims depleting public collection, the long drawn out proceedings concerning Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Blauer and makes some astonishing comments:

“Visit Austria's great museums and you can't miss their sad spoliation. One of the most expensive art sales of all time, that of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I in 2006, came about after a court case that led to this crystalline monument to Freud's and Mahler's modern metropolis being removed from the Belvedere museum in Vienna - where it illuminated Vienna's history, and specifically its Jewish history - and "restituted" to heirs of the original owner, who live in the United States”.

Jones has surely chosen the wrong example for that case illustrates abundantly the unwillingness of certain States to treat correctly those pursuing such claims. All kinds of delaying tactics and tricks were employed to prevent the claimant from obtaining her rights, including attempts to label her as some type of rapacious person. The way the claimant was handled was entirely disgraceful and without the intervention of determined lawyers during seven years of legal proceedings, she would not have recovered her property. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Altmann) Jones is probably not aware that when Maria Altman sued the Austrian Government in 1999 for her paintings, the Austrian courts required her to deposit a filing fee of US$1.5 million, later reduced to $350,000 and that in view of this excessive amount Altmann dropped the case and sued in the United States in 2000. The case, Republic of Austria v. Altmann, went to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in 2004 that Austria was not immune from such a lawsuit. After this decision, Altmann and Austria entered into arbitration. The arbitration court ruled in 2006 that Austria was legally bound to return the artworks to Altmann. Austria returned the works in the same year, but not before some further shameful tactics and statements which are better left unmentioned.

 

Jones exceeds his own hyperboles when he exclaims: “Memory is being vandalised in the name of memory. The history of central Europe, of the matrix of Jewish art collectors and Jewish culture that was so rich and central to European life on the eve of the Holocaust, is obscured, not revealed, by this process.”

I must energetically contradict Jones on this point. Many of us not related in any way to the memory and culture he is referring to became aware and very interested in this subject when the various claims to recover Nazi looted art were published in the media. The public discussion on this matter in the mass media revealed to us the history and culture behind many of the artworks hanging in museums, not only in Vienna but elsewhere with cryptic words about their provenance. We would even go so far as to suggest that such claims should be pursued if for nothing else but for the light they throw on the history and culture of that period and for the memory of those who lost their lives under the evil and brutal Nazi regime.

 

How can anybody state “At best, restitution so long after the crime is meaningless”? Has Jones not heard of the saying “It is better late that never”?

Has Jones ever considered the feelings of the victims of Nazi spoliations and their successors? Above all, whose fault is it that such claims have taken so long to be settled?

 

It is surely not the fault of the claimants that those charged with settling such disputed have taken some sixty-years and are no where near settling the claims.

Sometimes, it is pretended that it is difficult to identify the owners and their successors but as shown by a current exhibition in Vienna, Recollecting: Looted Art and Restitution, the Nazis were methodical and in many cases carefully noted the names of owners and their residences where many objects were looted. (http://www.mak.at)

Does Jones realize that there has been the thought that by delaying the process of restitution one could reduce the number of possible claimants? Many will be dead before the process nears its end.

 

Every statement of Jones seems calculated to shock by its lack of logic and its irrelevance to the rights of claimants of Nazi-looted art:The dark side of restitution became very visible last year, when the Royal Academy's exhibition of Russian art (and perhaps this experience made Rosenthal think) was menaced by restitution claims. In this case, it is the descendants of Russian art collectors whose collections were nationalised after the 1917 Revolution who want "their" property back. It was amazing how such claims were reported as if their moral case were self-evident. In reality, anyone who has visited the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow knows how much good these museums do, what beacons of civility and culture they are, how brutish it would be to weaken their collections - and that is true of all public museums, everywhere.”

 

The dark side of restitution” that Jones refers to turns out to be simply the possibility of claims by descendants of those whose art collections were nationalized after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Why is this “the dark side of Restitution”? After all such claims are brought before legally constituted courts.

How can claims within the established legal system be so described? Perhaps an attempt to discredit the courts too for entertaining such claims at all?

 

With all due respect to Jonathan Jones, the last paragraph in his article is illogical. That the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow are “beacons of civility and culture” has clearly nothing to do with the rights of the claimants to works of arts hanging there and would be considered as extraneous matter by an impartial body determining the foundation of the claims to those artworks.

 

We believe it is best to leave uncommented the last sentences by Jones:

 

“A work of art should never, ever be taken away from a public museum
without the strongest of reasons. Making good the crimes of the Nazis
may seem just that - but it is meaningless. No horrors are reversed. Instead, historical threads are broken, paintings are taken away from the cities where they have the deepest meaning, and money is made by the art market.”

Opponents of restitution may have some good arguments but so far what has been offered, especially in the last weeks, does not render good service to their cause.

 

Those who argue that the public has an interest to see some stolen artwork stay in a museum rather than be returned to the lawful owner do not often reflect seriously on what they are saying. To advance the public interest as an argument presupposes that one has defined the “public” that one is talking about. The general public, the population in a city or country cannot be confused with the museum going public that often is not more than 1 per cent of the general population. The argument also presupposes that one has distinguished the various competing and sometimes conflicting interests of the public (however defined) and concluded that a particular interest is so important as to take precedence over all others.

 

The competing interests of the general public (the total population) as regards the keeping of Nazi-looted art in museum, will surely include the interest in the respect for the rule of law, the respect for individual rights to property, the observation of individual freedoms and the avoidance of discrimination based on race, religion or sex, the prohibition against the use of force against any particular ethnic or religious group even by government authorities and the moral and religious precept, not to steal the property of others..

 

All the above interests have to be weighed before concluding that one interest is so important as to take precedence over the rest. Is the interest of the general public in seeing a Nazi-looted art work in a museum so important as to outweigh the need for respect of individual rights and the right to private property? In view of the Nazi atrocities (and here we are dealing with only Nazi- looted art works and not all artworks), it seems to me that the public interest in the respect for the rule of law and individual rights must prevail.

The contrary view taken by the opponents of restitution in this regard brings them to a position similar that of the Nazis even though they may not share their nefarious ideology. They both deny a particular group their right to property, albeit for different reasons. The one, because these persons belong to a certain ethnic/religious group they wish to eliminate and the other because they think this group has been exercising their normal rights for too long.

 

The pleas for setting time limits to claims by victims of Nazi-looted art and their descendants are remarkable from another point of view. Until now the general view has been that such claims have not been rapidly settled. Many countries did not seriously start to deal with these claims until recently. The Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets which adopted principles for dealing with Nazi-confiscated art was held as late as December 1998.The members of the various bodies charged with assisting with restitution of Nazi-looted art would be the first to admit there is still a lot to be done. Moreover, it is common knowledge that Nazi-looted art in the possession of public museums and galleries in Great Britain cannot, according to English Law, be returned to their owners or their successors even if the relevant evidence of Nazi loot is accepted by all sides. The most they can hope for is compensation which is by no means as high as selling the object in the open market. http://www.elginism.com It is also necessary to mention that the British Parliament passed a specific law, Tribunals Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 to provide protection for objects on loan from abroad in temporary public exhibitions in museums and galleries in the United Kingdom in response to concerns from museums that a number of international lenders were refusing to lend items to UK museums without a guarantee of their safe return, because of possibility of legal actions for restitution by those who felt they and their relatives have been deprived of artworks by the Soviet Government, following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

 

Thus there is no basis for any alarm that museums and public galleries in Britain or any other countries are in imminent danger of being emptied of their artworks by claims for restitution for Nazi-looted art. A public anxiety, devoid of any substance or credible evidence except perhaps envy or dislike, is being created. The relatives and descendants of victims of Nazi loot are being accused or suspected of intending to do something which, as we have shown above, they cannot do because present English law does not allow it, namely, to remove from museums and public galleries Nazi-looted works of art by way of suits for restitution.

 

It is to the eternal shame of Europe that more than sixty years after the downfall of the evil Nazi regime, victims of Nazi oppression and their descendants still have to fight for their rights and that even persons in higher positions are beginning to question whether they should be allowed to continue to pursue their normal rights through the established legal system. Those making such calls should be reminded that one of the principles adopted at Washington was

“7. Pre-War owners and their heirs should be encouraged to come forward and make known their claims to art that was confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted.”

 

My old professor would have declared that the demand for time limitation is tainted with moral opprobrium.

 

                                                                                                         Kwame Opoku, 13 January, 2009.


7.  The Art Newspaper 22 January 2009

Responses to Norman Rosenthal

I have to disagree with the writer's arguement for statute of limitations. Such a limitation would serve to encourage thieves and others who have misappropriated both antiquities and other art objects. The circumstances that surround each object at issue must be considered individually, in consideration of the facts and the laws of the country of origin.
8.1.09 | Jennifer Unruh | New York


I am speechless by the misinformation suggested in the illustration to Mr. Rosenthal's article. P. Watson and C. Todeschini convincingly argued in their "The Medici Conspiracy" (2006) that the Euphronios Krater, sold by G. Medici to the New York Metropolitan Museum though Robert Hecht for 1 M USD, was looted, in 1971, from an Etrucan tomb. Both were in due course convicted for criminal organization, while the Met and the Italian government in 2006 signed an agreement for restitution of this and other pieces. The question, therefore, is not whether "Italy really need[s] more kraters like this?", but rather "How to fight organized art crime?". I find it unforgiveable that a distinguished scholar as Mr. Rosenthal so sloppily confuses the issue of art crime with that of limiting restitution claims to unlawfully appropriated art during the Nazi period. It reminds me of Dr. Goebbels's propaganda campaigns presenting portraits of half-wits, accompanied by ominous questions like "Do Untermenschen like these deserve to live among us?".
6.1.09 | Dr Riemer Knoop | Amsterdam

I find it particularly distasteful that museums in England and the US have been required to return works of art. After all Britain and the US were not involved in these terrible crimes and we lost hundreds of thousands of people defeatring the perpatrators.
16.12.08 | Andrew | London

Thank you Mr Rosenthal for what you have said. It is something that many of us have thought for some while but few dare to articulate publicly. I think the crucial matters here are public accessibility and the lapse of time. Why should museums today pay the price for the crimes of the past; the current curators and museum directors are not gulity of colluding with the Nazi booty hunters and nor are the vast majority (all?)of visitors. The real winners in all this are the lawyers and auction houses. Why not require them to donate all their fees and commissions to those museums who have lost artefacts, then at least we could be sure no one profited from the crimes of the past. It would also reveal the pure altruism that obviously drives though who are involved in this business. It is purely driven by altruism and a sense of justice right?
16.12.08 | Simon Lemieux | Portsmouth Hants

I find the argumentation of Norman Rosenthal so shocking that,for once,I am lost for words. What kind of mind is this that will deprive peoples of rights they have from their predecessors simply because others whose predecessors suffered the same atrocious fate under the evil Nazis did not have art works? That history is history cannot mean that we must accept the nefarious acts of groups such as the Nazis. That claims arising from Nazi atrocities have still not been settled is surely a sad commentary on the commitment of certain governments to uprooting such evils but clearly we cannot blame the great-grand children of Nazi victims from pursuing their claims. It would be terrible if future generations would simply cease to pursue their legal rights because of the time it takes to go through legal systems which have always been on the side of the mighty. Kwame Opoku.
14.12.08 | DR.KWAMEOPOKU | Vienna

I could not agree with this piece more. Thank you for articulating this issue with timely precision. By allowing restitution to carry on in this fashion you are quite right, we are perpetuating a public cultural impoverishment, but perhaps more importantly we are preserving the concept that it is better to avenge than to accept and forgive. Art is made to inspire and to tell stories. Art loses those abilities when it is held hostage, be it from the public or from fulfilling its deeper purpose. Art stolen in the throws of violence and war has gained an additional layer to its narrative, one that can be made most accessible and inspirational, by being available to as many people as possible. Museums and governments would be quite wise to revise their epistemologies of material ownership, and embrace a more trancsendant management ethos. In doing so, they inspire us, the viewing the public to do the same....
14.12.08 | KA | San Francisco

I have to agree with this. If we continue to give restitution, generations after the fact, when does it end? We all have ancestors that were wronged in some way. Some more than others, and if so, don't we all deserve some form of restitution? Nothing at this point will ever make up for what has gone on in the past. I have to wonder how much of this is driven by trying make things right and how much is driven by greed. If restitution was giving only for what the objects were worth at the time, instead of the values today, how many of these cases would we hear about?
14.12.08 | Chad | San Diego

The writer says "To the best of my knowledge, this vase is not even on public view at the moment". Actually, the Euphronios vase is currently on public view at the new Acropolis Museum of Athens as part of the "Nostoi" exhibition.
13.12.08 | J.C. | Athens, Greece

Restitution at this late stage should be halted. How long are we going to live on the horrors of WWII? And why isn't restitution being sought for all the horros of the past - Stalin killed more people than Hitler, but very little is said about Stalin being a monster! What about all the others who have been ensalved or slaughtered in the past, are we to revisit this part of history constantly and forever? NO, we are to remember and learn from these historiacal facts so as to, hopefully, prevent them from reoccuring and move on with our lives.
12.12.08 | Artist Sculptor | Chicago

I can't possibly agree with what this man is saying here. If works of art or whatever other type of private property is taken from individuals or families by acts or war or other illegal means, neither time nor patrimonial value can be used as an excuse for avoiding restitution.
12.12.08 | Ben Morales-Correa | San Juan

While restitution should be made in the case of recent theft or looting should Russian museums give up their treasures to the descendents of aristocrats robbed during the revolution. Or should all African works collected by travellers be returned to countries of origin to rot in under-resourced museums rather than disseminated to inspire and inform throughout the world.
12.12.08 | A Taylor | Johannesburg

And equally, for this idea to work, countries should not hold their patrimony and exhibition policy hostage to the idea of restitution as Italy seemingly and publicly did with respect to the Metropolitan Museum
11.12.08 | A. Walton | New York 

8.  Response of David Lewis, Co-chair, Commission for Looted Art in Europe to Norman Rosenthal's Art Newspaper article, 16 December 2008

The article by Norman Rosenthal represents an extraordinary viewpoint on matters of equity and justice.  It is certainly true that the concept of a statute of limitations exists in order that certain matters cannot go on indefinitely.  However, to argue that the consequences of the actions of the Nazis which are still within living memory of individuals and direct descendants should be effectively wiped out in relation to restitution of loot is quite unacceptable.

 

His views seem quite out of touch with the current situation.  Just this week,  at a German government conference in Berlin attended by government and museum representatives from Europe and North America, the German authorities disclosed that there remain “thousands and thousands” of looted artworks in their public collections which they believe must be returned.  Their view is that no deadline can be set where there is so much yet to be done.

 

Norman Rosenthal’s argument seems to relate to restitution from museums.  He does not refer to looted objects in the hands of individuals.  What is the difference in equity between the two?  Does it in some way eliminate the theft merely because a work of art ends up in public view rather than individual view?  Does it alter the position if the museum merely stores the object and does not display it?  It would indeed be unhelpful to say the least if criminal acts were able to be removed from the record merely by saying “that is the way it is”.

 

It is outrageous to imply that it is only “the rich” who are seeking restitution.  That is a travesty of the facts.  The vast majority of claimants are part of families that were decimated and whose circumstances are modest.  The vast majority of objects identified and claimed are not of great value.  They are, however, remnants of households and lives that were brutally ended and all the more valuable in that context. 

 

It is outrageous to imply that efforts to restitute are “cynical and unpleasant”.  To compare restitution of looted objects to the illegitimate selling of sub-prime mortgages reveals ignorance both of efforts to retrieve stolen property on the one hand and how financial markets work on the other.  It is a rather odious comparison.

 

It is outrageous to generalise that we “should let go of the past and live in the present”.  Which political regime does he believe would come under such categorisation?  He seeks to divide the best of the past from the worst of the past.  Who is the arbiter of best and worst? 

 

It is illegal to steal or loot.  The rule of law is fundamental to a free society. Rosenthal’s article seeks to invent a new understanding of what is right and what is wrong.  For one’s ancestors to have “lost wealth” is one thing, but it is another to have had it stolen or looted as part of an appalling genocide. Whilst in living memory it is right and proper to seek redress fairly and equitably as far as practicable.

 

 

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