Hunting high and low for Nazi sympathisers who didn't exist

Irish Independent 29 September 2007

In a report published this week by the Royal Irish Academy on their website, the internationally recognised expert on Nazi-looted art during the Second World War, Mrs Lynn Nicholas, has attempted to bring to a conclusion the four-year controversy affecting the Hunt Museum in Limerick.

The heart of her findings is contained in the statement: "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".

Mrs Nicholas is critical of the Irish Government; of the Royal Irish Academy, which took responsibility for investigating the origins of the collection, and of the Evaluation Group which was set up to do this.

Her strongest criticisms, however, are directed against the Wiesenthal Centre in Paris and the director of its European Office, Dr Shimon Samuels. His decision to publicly accuse the late John and Gertrude Hunt of having done business "with notorious dealers in art looted by the Nazis" sparked the controversy.

The accusation was made in an open letter to President Mary McAleese, calling on her to withdraw the "Irish Museum of the Year Award" from the Hunt Museum. This was on 26 January 2004.

This aggressive view taken by Shimon Samuels touched sensitive nerve-endings. Irish neutrality reinforced by anti-British feeling was one aspect. There was also the recall, historically, of the periodic waves of anti-semitism in 20th Century Irish history. Moreover, the fact that this country sheltered Nazi fugitives after the Second World War was very much part of the hidden agenda of debate at the time of the Wiesenthal letter.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs Nicholas says: "The sensational and calculated manner in which Dr Samuels announced his suspicions in an open letter containing personal allegations and implied criticism of the wartime actions of the Republic of Ireland, then holding the Presidency of the EU, was both undiplomatic and offensive."

It has taken since then -- an extraordinary length of time, given the false evidence that was used and was later readily detected -- for the controversy to be sorted out. The report, which is independent and comes from an internationally respected authority, is severe in its judgments.

The allegations are found to be insubstantial and the evidence weak. Documents have been wrongly interpreted and misrepresented.

Shimon Samuels said in the letter to the President that the Hunts had "close personal ties with the head of the Irish Nazi Party" and he implied that their collections, forming the core of the Hunt Museum's holdings of works of art, were suspect and needed investigation as did other works of art sold by the Hunts. This turns out to be untrue.

Mrs Nicholas finds the Wiesenthal Centre seriously at fault in not revealing its own evidence. Instead, she says, a decision was made "to challenge the Irish authorities in a sort of blackmail game" which involved putting the onus of discovery of the details which the Wiesenthal Centre claimed it had at its disposal on the Irish State. This, Mrs Nicholas says, "was unprofessional in the extreme".

Mrs Nicholas praises the director of the Hunt Museum, Virginia Teehan, for her careful and thorough response to the charges. Having reviewed the records of Ms Teehan's researches, Mrs Nicholas finds her conclusions "accurate". They were carried out with no help from the Wiesenthal Centre, a predictable result of their confrontational approach.

Less predictable and less excusable was the indifference of the Irish State and the Department of the Arts to the difficulties faced by the director of the Hunt Museum. Mrs Nicholas found: "She should certainly have been provided with more help." This clearly should have come from the Government through the Department of the Arts.

The Irish State, and its chosen route of response to the Weisenthal challenge, had many faults, particularly the mistakes and misjudgements of the Evaluation Group and its key figures, Sean Cromien, former Secretary-General of the Department of Finance, who was chairman, and Michael Ryan, director of the Chester Beatty Library, who acted as secretary.

The group did not fulfil its own terms of reference, allowing all the emphasis to be on the setting up of a Hunt Museum website but ignoring several other requirements. These included the holding of a meeting with the Wiesenthal Centre and the evaluation of their documentation. This did not take place nor were all relevant documents placed on the website. This left it open to the Wiesenthal Centre to reinforce and repeat allegations that had no real evidence behind them.

No attempt was made to investigate the Military Archive file and the Evaluation Group, according to Mrs Nicholas's report, "seems to have decided that it could be ignored for the purposes of the Group's Final Report". The Wiesenthal centre made the situation worse by concealing the existence of this file.

The Evaluation Group went public in June of last year but did not notify the Wiesenthal Centre or make provision for someone to attend from the Paris office. Shimon Samuels said he would have done so. Mrs Nicholas concludes that both the Wiesenthal Centre and the Evaluation Group "made unwise decisions".

From the Wiesenthal letter, sent almost four years ago, to the Report, released this week, the senior and experienced people appointed have wobbled and prevaricated through an almost endless stream of error.

Their job was to resolve a highly controversial and damaging assault on this country's standards in art management, judicial research and investigation. It also involved protection of the good name of the State. Many further questions of a political kind, raised by this episode, are yet to be answered.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024