Israel Museum exhibits hope to match looted Holocaust art with owners

Jerusalem Post 13 February 2008
By David Brinn  

More than 50 paintings and drawings stolen from France by the Nazis during World War II will go on display at the Israel Museum next week in an effort to trace the works' owners. But due to a law passed in the Knesset last year, if a lucky patron discovers one of his family's long-lost possessions, he'll have to make his claim in France.

Israel Museum staff prepare to hang 'Still Life with Birds' by Matthias Withoos, one of the works in the 'Looking for Owners' exhibit of art stolen from France by the Nazis. Leaning against the far wall are left Claude Monet Hunting Trophy and Edouard Manet's 'Portrait of Antonin Proust'.
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimksi

The Immunity from Seizure for Loans Law, initiated by the Israel Museum and passed in early 2007, assures countries lending art or artifacts to Israel that the pieces can't be claimed on the spot by Holocaust survivors or their families. Instead, claimants must file their claims in the country possessing the art.

Claims can be made on a Web site set up by the French government (in a number of languages, including Hebrew), and once a year, a tribunal is slated to come to Israel to adjudicate claims.

The exhibit, entitled "Looking for Owners: Custody, Research and Restitution of Art Stolen in France during World War II," opens on Tuesday. It is organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture and Communication in collaboration with the Israel Museum, and draws on a collection of works of art in France known as Musées Nationaux Récupération.

The exhibition features the work of major European artists, including Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat.

"The French partners in this exhibit thought it was really important to show the diversity of art categories that the Nazis stole from them," said Shlomit Steinberg, the Israel Museum's curator of European art. "So there's a certain mélange of possibilities - you can find an old master next to a modern painting. There's works on metal, wood and canvas of different styles and sizes."

Since the purpose of the exhibit is to trace the works' original owners, Steinberg said, the works will be accompanied by enlarged labels detailing their provenance information - everything that is known about their ownership history.

A separate exhibition of more than 50 of the 1,200 unclaimed works of looted art held by the Israel Museum, which were stolen during the war and later brought to Israel, will be displayed concomitantly.

Titled "Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust in the Israel Museum," the exhibit features paintings, drawings, prints and books, together with a selection of Jewish ceremonial objects, and includes such artists as Jan Both, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Marc Chagall, Egon Schiele and Alfred Sisley.

The works were given to the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization after the war. After efforts to distribute these orphaned objects among museums, synagogues and other Jewish organizations in Israel and worldwide, the remainder was given to the Israel Museum, which became the custodian of the 250 paintings, 250 works on paper, and 700 objects of Judaica.

According to Steinberg, the works had no prior ownership history or basic catalogue information, and many came in poor condition, making conservation, restoration and research an extensive undertaking.

"We've put the best works on display," said Steinberg. "My job has been to heal the paintings, which I've been doing for the last four years. Some were in truly bad shape, really orphans. But when we cleaned them up, we founds things like the artist's signature. That's the great part of it for me."
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