Recovered From Nazi Germany

The Wall Street Journal 25 March 2008
By Meir Ronnen, Jerusalem

Two parallel exhibitions now at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem are devoted to art and Jewish ritual objects recovered from Nazi Germany over half a century ago. In many cases, the original owners have never been traced. "Orphaned Art" is a collection of some 40 works, the best of hundreds of minor objects that the Israel Museum has been sitting on for over four decades. These were allocated to Israel in 1953 by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization (JRSO). The second show, "Looking for Owners" is a didactic display of 53 paintings on loan from France. It comes from the collection of works of art known as Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR) and features some major European artists. 
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The Israel Museum exhibit features 53 art works which were stolen during the Holocaust and are now on loan from France.

At the opening of "Looking for Owners," France's Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel, said she hoped a miracle would occur and that some Israeli would come forward and claim ownership of one of the works. But the show's name is a misnomer. The exhibition is actually a plug for the MNR and a historical survey of its work, presented in the following categories: works that have already been restituted; works looted from unknown owners; works stolen from Jewish families that were returned following the war and subsequently re-gifted to or purchased by the state; unprovenanced works; art bought in the open French art market by German dealers and collectors during the war. None of those in the biggest group in the French show, the paintings bought on the open market, are eligible for further restitution.

Of some 100,000 objects that were taken from France and brought to the Third Reich, either through looting or forced sales, at least 60,000 were repatriated to France after the war. Of these, 2,000 items that could not be restituted due to a lack of ownership history or because they had not been looted were given in custody to French national museums like the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay and Centre Georges-Pompidou.

Hitler recruited leading art German experts to compile a secret list of works that had left German collections after the year 1500 and which he wanted "repatriated" to Germany. Plundering of Jewish property began in Germany and Austria in 1938 and reached a climax with the Final Solution. Major art collections were soon confiscated throughout Europe, accompanied by other forms of looting. Modernist works termed degenerate by the Nazis were sold by Hitler's dealers, who were paid fat commissions. At the end of the war, a staggering number of artworks, books, archival materials and other cultural artifacts were discovered in hiding places throughout Germany and Austria -- in depots, salt mines, castles, museum storerooms, and even private homes. In addition, all German museums, collectors and dealers were forced to list and return everything they had acquired during the Third Reich.

The director of the Israel Museum, James Snyder, was recently the prime mover of the Immunity From Seizure of Loans Law enacted in Israel last year. A claimant for a work on loan to Israel now has to pursue the claim in the country where the work is held in custody, an added difficulty and expense.

Retired Israeli judge Shoshana Berman, a leading expert on the relationships between art and law, describes the new Israeli law as nothing less than a denial of access to justice. American lawyer Charles Goldstein, who, like Ms. Berman, is an active member of the London-based International-Interdisciplinary Forum on Cultural Diplomacy, finds it incredible that the law should have been passed in Israel, of all places.

Mr. Snyder told me that the French show was loaned on the condition that an Israeli law ensure that all the paintings be returned to France. Mr. Snyder notes that France has a similar law and says that any Israeli claimant can apply via the MNR Web site.

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The Israel Museum displays some 40 works which were recovered from Nazi Germany and allocated to Israel by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization.

The Israel Museum has returned some 20 works to claimants over the past decade, notably a superb late Pissarro of the Boulevard Monmartre that had been bequeathed to the museum by John and Frances L. Loeb of New York. The painting is still on loan to the museum, courtesy of the daughter-in-law of the original owner. As the Pissarro did not come from the JRSO, it is not included in the present display. But the museum has not till now advertised its JRSO holdings (it is now mounting an illustrated Web site of them). Mr. Snyder is correct in terming most of the museum's 1,200 JRSO holdings as trivia, but to a grandchild recognizing a spice box from his family table, such a connection is priceless.

In the French show is a superb Delacroix portrait of a boy that the artist kept throughout his life; an early snow landscape by Monet; a particularly fine Utrillo of a church; a loosely brushed late self-portrait by Max Liebermann; an amusing Pieter de Hooch of a drinking party (returned to the daughter of Edouard de Rothschild and then donated by her to the Louvre); a superbly modern portrait of Pere Desmarets by Ingres; a tiny Cézanne self-portrait sketch retrieved from a German museum; a quietly delightful Chardin still-life; and a vibrant Fauvist-period painting of a kitchen by Vlaminck, a once-brilliant painter later excoriated for hobnobbing with Nazis during the Occupation of France. A nice little Matisse landscape from 1898 was found walled up in the home of an SS officer who committed suicide.

Among a number of large but kitschy works in the French show is a tasteless Courbet nude, purchased for Joachim von Ribbentrop, and a large Dirk van Ravenstyn of a Venus and Adonis that might have been modeled by a well-endowed hooker and her pimp. In August 1941 it went into the collection of Hermann Göring.

The two best things in the Israeli JRSO holdings are a large Egon Schiele of the town of Krumau, possibly the best of a series he painted of his mother's birthplace; and a small, simplified Chagall of a praying rabbi, painted in Paris in 1914, just before Chagall left on a visit to Russia. Stuck there by the war, a marriage and the revolution, he returned to Paris a decade later to find most of his marvelous early work stolen or ruined. This little oil is a reminder that Chagall was once a pioneer modernist.

Most Israeli visitors to this show will come just to see the pictures. Even some of the soft-porn ones like the Ravenstyn will be good for a smile.

Mr. Ronnen has just retired after 59 years at the Jerusalem Post and after half a century as its art editor and chief critic.
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