What the Nazis stole, museums tend to keep

The International Herald Tribune 13 May 2004
Alan Riding

PARIS -- For almost half a century, Europe overlooked the art treasures that were looted from Jewish homes by the Nazis and were never returned. Then, as mid-20th-century European history resurfaced in the 1990s, the political climate changed. Suddenly, missing art became a moral issue and red-faced governments, museums and auction houses hurriedly promised to make amends. In the glare of publicity, no one wanted to be seen profiting from the Holocaust.

Yet, despite all the headlines, relatively little of this looted art has so far been restituted. True, it represents only a small proportion of what the Nazis stole from Jews. After World War II, hundreds of thousands of works were recovered by Allied forces and duly returned to their owners or their heirs. The issue today relates to art that was recovered but was not restituted and art that was resold during the war and ended up in museums and private collections.

In theory, a structure is in place to address the problem. Many European countries have formed commissions to study restitution claims, while museums have agreed to review the provenance of art acquired since 1933. In most countries, some artworks have been returned to families of original owners. Everywhere, it would seem, there is awareness that private collections and museums own Nazi-tainted art.

But in practice, this wound of history is proving difficult to repair. Looted art in private collections is hard to trace until it enters the marketplace. An auction house that identifies a looted work may then simply return it to the vendor rather than disclose its background. Many European museums have also been slow to carry out provenance research and publish the results. And they are reluctant to surrender important paintings unless confronted by irrefutable claims.

Claimants, too, face obstacles. Three generations after the war, it is often impossible to find documentary evidence to support restitution claims, particularly if families were shattered or dispersed by the Holocaust. Heirs may also not speak, say, the Czech, Polish or German of their grandparents. And bureaucratic procedures and legal alternatives for restitution vary by country.

"Many claimants are elderly and don't have much money to pay for research," said Sarah Jackson, a researcher at the Art Loss Registry in London, which includes looted art on its data base. "It's desperately time-consuming and difficult to search in the archives. Sometimes the paper trail goes through six or seven countries. Going to court is also very expensive. There just isn't any blanket way of dealing with these cases."

In the United States, the search for looted art is driven by Jewish organizations and individual museums, with lawsuits the ultimate recourse. But in Europe, despite moves by the European Union to harmonize practices, almost every country has adopted a different approach.

"There are thousands of looted works of art in public collections throughout Europe," said Anne Webber, co-chairwoman of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, based in London. "Many of them have not been publicly identified, and of those which have, it is not always easy for heirs to recover them." In Britain, 66 museums have identified hundreds of works of uncertain provenance. "But we haven't had the wave of claims we expected," said Sean Bullick, secretary to the National Museum Directors' Conference. Of five claims to date, only one - for a painting in the Tate collection - has been upheld by a Spoliation Advisory Panel. However, pending a promised new law, Britain can only pay compensation for - and not restitute - looted art.

Britain is also an important art market. While in the past Sotheby's and Christie's were considered lax in researching works put up for sale, both now have provenance experts. But The Guardian newspaper recently accused Christie's of a cover-up when it identified a looted old master and neglected to alert the original owner's heirs. In other cases, works have been withdrawn after being spotted in auction catalogs. 

In Germany, an Art Coordination Office based in Magdeburg has a data base listing 70,000 missing objects covering both the Nazi regime and art seized by the Soviet Army. Of these, about 1,800 works are being sought by 90 Jewish families. However, Michael Franz, director of the coordination office, said he was aware of only about 10 restitutions from this list.

Few German museums have completed provenance researches: of about 6,000 museums, 18 have so far published reports, identifying 20,000 objects of dubious provenance. In contrast, according to Wolfgang Marcus, director of restitution in the Culture Ministry, only five works have so far been returned by federal museums and some 15 by regional museums, although some claims are resolved without publicity.

Austria, annexed by Germany in 1938, was nudged into addressing the problem by the seizure of two Schiele paintings sent to a show in New York in 1997. But in 1998 it passed an Art Restitution Act and since then it has reviewed its national collections and resolved 92 restitution cases involving 2,659 works of art (including paintings, coins, books and porcelain). Like Germany, though, many of its research reports are available only in German.

"The government is clearly not keen to make this a public issue," said Sophie Lillie, who has just published "What Was," a 1,500-page study of 148 prewar Austrian Jewish collections. "I feel there is a deliberate effort to make it an elitist issue rather than a moral imperative. Strangely, the government does more than it wants to take credit for."

Instead, public attention has focused on the Bloch-Bauer case, which is being heard in the United States because claimants cannot use Austrian courts to challenge a negative ruling. In this case, the heir of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a prominent Austrian Jewish collector, is suing in the United States for the return of six Klimt paintings in a Vienna museum. The Supreme Court in Washington is expected to rule soon on whether American courts have jurisdiction.

In the Netherlands, where several major Jewish art collections were seized by the Nazis, the government initially showed reluctance to return works long ensconced in national museums. In January 2002, however, a Restitutions Committee was created to study individual cases. In its first two years of work, it studied 16 applications and ruled on 12, recommending restitution in nine cases and rejection in three. In France, it was a book, "The Lost Museum," by an American journalist, Hector Feliciano, that first drew attention to 2,143 looted artworks that the French government recovered after the war and retained. Feliciano's charge that France had made little effort to trace the rightful owners eventually embarrassed the government into holding exhibitions and creating a Web site in 1997 to publicize the works.

Since 1999, 25 of these works, including "Nymphéas" by Monet, have been restituted. But France has so far refused to carry out a thorough provenance research of its major collections. To demonstrate goodwill, though, the French government is debating lending some 14 works from its "recuperated" collection to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

What is becoming apparent, however, is that much of the art "lost" by Jewish families and not returned after World War II may be lost forever. Some heirs still have faded prewar photographs of art treasures on Grandpa's sitting-room wall, but finding the works is not enough. The burden is on the claimant to prove ownership, not on the museum to explain mysterious gaps in provenance between 1933 and 1945. And that suits the museums just fine.
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