On January 26th, 2004 Dr. Shimon Samuels, of the European Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris sent an open letter to Mary McAleese, President of the Republic of Ireland, requesting that she retract the "Irish Museum of the Year Award" which had recently been given to the Hunt Museum in Limerick. In the letter, which was also made public in a press release, Dr. Samuels alleged that Mr. and Mrs. John Hunt, both deceased, whose collections form the core of the museum, had been suspected of being German spies in 1940, that they had had "close personal ties with the head of the Irish Nazi Party (NSDP-AO)" and that they had done business with "notorious dealers in art looted by the Nazis," the implication being that objects in the Hunt Museum might have been confiscated from Holocaust victims. Dr. Samuels asked that "the entire holdings of the Museum as also all items sold by the Hunts to other collections" be placed on the Internet so that claims could be made, and that the Irish government "enunciate a new transparency in regard to its own wartime neutrality by sponsoring a full and independent investigation into the role of John and Gertrude Hunt.
On February 20th, Virginia Teehan, director of the museum, declared that the Museum had begun a process of investigation based on "best international museum practice as outlined in various international declarations, including the UNESCO-endorsed International Council of Museums code of ethics".
An expert panel or 'Review Group' was appointed to investigate the allegations. This panel comprised Mr Justice Donal Barrington, former High Court and Supreme Court judge, Ms Anne Webber, Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, and Mr Hugh Tait, former Deputy Keeper, Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities at the British Museum. (See Museum press release of 20 February 2004 here.
The Review Group met several times to consider the issues and draft terms of reference. It was to be funded by the Museum itself, but was strongly of the view that in carrying out the necessary investigations, the Group must be independently funded. Unless that were the case, its credibility would be at issue. It therefore submitted its resignation.
A new Evaluation Group was eventually formed, this time funded by the Irish government and administered by the Royal Irish Academy. The new panel did not have representatives of either the Hunt Museum or the Wiesenthal Center. The Group began work in May 2005.
In its Terms of Reference, the Evaluation Group was required to oversee and advise on the preparation and publication on the internet of a website which would include images and all known provenance information and documentation related to the objects in the Hunt Museum. Priority was to be given to objects thought to have been acquired between 1933 and 1945. In addition, any Hunt family files relating to the collection were to be examined by an independent expert. A meeting was to be arranged with representatives of the Wiesenthal Center to examine the documentation they had to support their allegations, which also was to be evaluated by an independent expert. Findings were to be shared with other museums that had objects formerly belonging to the Hunts, and the Museum was to place on the web "all documents which have a material bearing on the matters enquired into."
An Interim Report by the Evaluation Group was published in February, 2006. The Report noted that the website project had been completed by late October 2005 and that specialized provenance research had begun.
The [Final Report was] made public at a seminar for the Irish museum community on June 19, 2006 in Dublin. During the course of the seminar the existence of [a] Military Archive file [on John and Gertrude Hunt] was made known to the public, not by one of the presenters, but by a member of the audience: Mr. Eamonn Kelly. This dramatic revelation renewed media interest in the case and most of the information in the file was soon published. On June 21, the Wiesenthal Centre, in a press release, also finally disclosed that the Military Archive file had been the principal source of its allegations and Dr. Samuels gave his version of its contents. As he had previously stated he would do, he now condemned the Evaluation Group for not including the file in its Report.
The Wiesenthal Centre press release also contained a list of other complaints and accusations: Samuels pointed out that private files held by the Hunt Family, which the family had declared not to be relevant to the collection, should be examined. He suggested that dealer’s records should have been searched but did not specify which dealers. He cast doubt upon the objectivity of [the] research. He also alleged that individuals associated with the Hunt Museum had seen the file but not revealed its contents to the Evaluation Group. Dr. Samuels therefore demanded that a public statement be made “as to whether any agents, representatives or persons acting on behalf of the Hunt family or Hunt Museum had ever had access to the Irish military archives” and declared that the Evaluation group had not acted independently or with transparency. The press release was followed by a letter from Dr. Samuels to the Secretary of the Evaluation Group in which he stated that the Group had never addressed the charges of the Irish researchers involved in the debate or called upon their expertise, and demanded that the investigation process be reopened. Dr Samuels was subsequently offered the opportunity of meeting with the Evaluation Group but failed to respond.
In a further reponse to this letter, Dr Michael Ryan, Secretary of the Evaluation Group, in October, 2006, requested that [Dr Lynn Nicholas] analyze the methodology of the Group, respond to the criticisms of the Wiesenthal Centre, and suggest further action.
Lynn Nicholas's report was made public in September 2007 and is available here. It provides an authoritative account of the history and context of the allegations, the investigation carried out into them, and includes extensive recommendations for further action and investigation.
Dr Nicholas concludes that "an examination of the Hunt Museum Collection was certainly justified both by its lack of provenance records and by the discovery of the Hunt’s relationship with a dealer who is known to have trafficked in confiscated art". However, "analysis of the methodologies of both the Wiesenthal Centre and the Evaluation Group reveals that both made unwise decisions in setting guidelines and in regard to the inclusion in their statements and reports of relevant documentation.....The lack of communication among various elements of the Irish arts establishment, the Hunt Family, and the Wiesenthal Center, in the end, only delayed the conclusion that the presently available information and research provides no proof whatsoever that the Hunts were Nazis, that they were involved in any kind of espionage, or that they were traffickers in looted art".
Extracts from 'Report on the Final Report to the Royal Irish Academy by the Hunt Museum Evaluation Group, June 2006' by Lynn Nicholas 8 August 2007 published by the Royal Irish Academy
Hunt Museum at http://www.lootedart.com/NEA98U568751