New Efforts to Recover Nazi Plunder

The New York Times 27 February 2003
Ralph Blumenthal

Much of the art world is on the lookout as never before for lost Nazi plunder, but experts have become increasingly pessimistic that much more of it will ever be recovered and restored to its rightful owners.

This is the paradox confronting those who are trying to retrieve the prizes of history's biggest collective art theft, the German seizure of perhaps 600,000 important works from 1933 to 1945. As many as 100,000 pieces are still estimated to be missing, and some have undoubtedly been destroyed.

Much of the hope of recovery rests with a growing welter of Web sites that have been put up by American museums after looted art was found in some of them. In addition, the American Association of Museums, which says 15 cases of possibly stolen art are now being studied around the country, expects to activate its Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal, a central Web site, this year. Delayed for more than a year by financing problems, it is to be a shortcut to other sites listing thousands of works that have gaps in their provenance, or ownership history, during the Nazi period. Europe has its own Web sites.

But for all the efforts, experts say few if any lost works have been located through Internet postings, leading some prominent art recovery scholars to say that museums are doing too little too late.

"Museums hold themselves out as knowing everything," said Marc J. Masurovsky, an art search specialist who served on the 1998-2000 Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. "But now suddenly, they know nothing."

He said museums should impose the rigorous self-policing they pledged at a 1998 Washington conference that set the stage for the current intensified searches.

Harold Holzer, vice president for communications at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, "We think the surest way to reach the most people is to post full provenance information on the Web." He said the Met's site was constantly updated. (The link is Provenance Research Project under

Museum directors, including Philippe de Montebello of the Met, while pledging to redress wrongs, say that the debate has become fogged by distortions and inaccuracies and that their institutions are, at worst, occasional innocent victims of murky dealings going back more than half a century.

Beyond the museums are private dealers and collections from which there is little hope of identifying and retrieving lost art.

"Obviously, what this is all about is the art world having to pay the price for lack of interest in provenance that they have shown for generations," said Willi Korte, a leading international investigator of stolen art.

"It's a good idea to put it on the Internet and make it available, but I don't think there's a great deal of follow-up by museums."

Although the plunder was wide-ranging, its exact extent is unknowable. A London-based group, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which has its own central computer registry, says it has recovered 420 looted works since 1999 and is investigating some 7,000 others.

After the war, American investigators tallied the total number of art objects, books, Judaica, silver pieces and other valuables recovered from the Nazis in Europe. It came to some 10.7 million items, worth more than $37 billion today. In France, the center of the prewar European art world, the Nazis seized one-third of all art in private hands, much of it owned by Jews. Of the total (about 100,000 works, mostly paintings), about 70,000 pieces were restored to their owners after the war, said Hector Feliciano, a leading international art investigator and author of "The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art." The other 30,000, including many Modernist masterpieces, remain missing.

The history of restitutions does not give much cause for optimism. For 50 years, little happened. In the face of Nazi genocide, property crimes drew scant interest. The cold war also thwarted international cooperation. The climate finally shifted in the 1990's with the fall of Communism, the publication of important books on wartime looting and the discovery of some stolen works in American museums.
Momentum for a serious accounting built after the Manhattan District Attorney's office seized Egon Schiele's "Portrait of Wally" (1912) in 1998. Claimed by the heirs of a Jewish gallery owner in Vienna, it was then on loan from Austria to the Museum of Modern Art.

By the late 90's, many museums were focusing on the issue, and a handful of significant returns had been made by institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Seattle Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art, where the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations said it had earlier discovered a stolen still life by the 17th-century Flemish master Frans Snyders.

Last year, Poland, which has recorded 516,000 objects lost during the war, recovered four from the United States, including a 16th-century Persian tapestry which the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had bought at a London auction in 1970. The Nazis had stolen it from the Czartoryski family, which lost thousands of treasures, including one of the most valuable still missing, Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Man."

For several years, the Web sites of 18 leading museums, including the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, have given detailed descriptions of hundreds of paintings and other works requiring further study. These works, created before 1946 and acquired after 1932, show suspicious gaps in their provenance.

Some museums are doing extensive proactive research. At the Harvard University Art Museums, Sarah Kianovsky, an assistant curator, has been vetting about 150,000 pieces, and has identified 6,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures whose provenance cannot be fully traced.

"It's like peeling onions," she said. "You go through a bag, peeling off all the first layers. Then you start again, peeling off the second layers."

Many experts, though, caution that the results may be meager. Too many owners have died or disappeared, and too many works were stolen too many years ago for easy investigation.

"A lot of people in the last half of the 90's thought we can lick this without any idea of how intractable the problem was," said Constance Lowenthal, former director of the International Foundation for Art Research, who now tracks Holocaust claims for private clients and institutions. Much depends on your perspective, she said. Is a painting with provenance gaps guilty until proven innocent? Or innocent until proven guilty?

Mr. Feliciano, the author who in the 90's found more than 2,000 looted paintings in French museums and institutions, said the art world had changed for the better in the last few years. Too often, though, he added, "Museums and art dealers still have to be sued or threatened with lawsuits in order for them to start doing the right thing."

Mr. Korte, the investigator, said many museums simply listed works with gaps in provenance, rather than using their expertise to compare a piece's history with the thefts of the era. This means that possible claimants, often elderly and without financial resources, must trace the missing artworks themselves, a process one critic likened to giving them balls of yarn to untangle.

Some museum officials also fear that the looted-art cases will lead to thornier foreign claims for the return of cultural property acquired long before the Holocaust under the looser standards of earlier eras.

"This is the big bad wolf that's panting at the door," Dr. Lowenthal said. "They're afraid it'll blow their house down." Yet it is possible, she said, to draw legal and moral distinctions between Holocaust claims and those involving national patrimony.

Edward H. Able Jr., president of the museum association, which has also published a guidebook on provenance, said widespread recovery was unlikely. "It will help us to reassure ourselves," he said, "but I don't know that it will uncover a lot." He declined to give details of the 15 inquiries now under way.

Mr. de Montebello of the Met told the presidential commission that the handful of looted paintings that have turned up in American museums could not be equated with the quantities that have emerged in Europe. He said that he and his colleagues were committed to helping resolve the issue, but that American museums hold fewer than 20,000 European paintings, many acquired before the Nazis came to power.

Still, some searches have been successful. "Every little bit helps, but we don't have a lot of time," said Monica Dugot, a lawyer and deputy director of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the New York State Banking Department, which is investigating more than 120 art claims involving no fewer than 16,000 objects. Because of its experience investigating the handling of dormant Holocaust victims' accounts by Swiss banks with New York branches, the office has been unusually successful in tracking art claims, Holocaust researchers say. Nine claims have been publicly resolved, and others are pending.

One claimant, Ruth Haller, the daughter of Ismar Littman, a German Jewish lawyer and art collector from Breslau who committed suicide in 1934, is seeking thousands of missing artworks. The Holocaust Claims Processing Office tracked two of them, paintings by Lovis Corinth and Karl Hofer, through various sales in Germany, Norway and London and returned them to Ms. Haller. But the pressure is intense, Ms. Dugot said: about every two weeks, another elderly claimant dies.
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