The trouble with placing time limits on war-loot claims

ARTnews 21 February 2009
By Robin Cembalest

Max Pinselstrich’s Portrait of a Collector (1924), depicting a distinguished gentleman with wire-rimmed spectacles perched on a bulbous red nose, has long been the jewel of the collection of the Wolterberg Museum of Art. Recently, however, new information has emerged about its history: its owner was forced to sell it to escape the Holocaust. Now, almost 70 years later, the question of restitution has been broached. The man’s granddaughter, the son of the dealer who handled the sale, the director of the Wolterberg Museum, and the head of the region’s culture department are caught in a legal, ethical, and political quagmire. What to do next?

Don’t bother to Google them: they are all cartoon characters. They were created by Pet Gotohda, an illustrator better known for his cute animals—which is why Berlin’s Jewish Museum thought he was the right person to design an interactive game for its recent exhibition “Looting and Restitution.” In the game—called “What Would You Decide?”—players click on one of four bug-eyed protagonists and proceed through a series of choices, few of which have happy outcomes.

The game, which is available on the museum’s Web site, is an attempt to bring a human scale to a hot-button issue. “The design allows people to relate to each character,” says Dagmar Ganssloser, who developed the game with Etta Grotrian and other museum colleagues, basing it on about 300 real-life cases. “We’re trying to get visitors to take a different role from what they know or might be used to. No one is the bad guy in the game, but it is a bad situation.”

Not according to Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, who issued a sweeping call to end restitution in the Art Newspaper last fall. In Rosenthal’s bizarre conflation, the bad guys are not the Nazis or the thieves but the “grandchildren and great-grandchildren” of Holocaust victims who are seeking to remove looted artworks from the museums in which they belong. “We should not be overly obsessive about the worst of the past—it is not useful either to individuals or society as a whole,” he counseled. “Each person should invent him or herself creatively in the present, and not on the back of the lost wealth of ancestors.”

It was a knock heard round the world. The story was picked up by news outlets as far afield as Africa, South America, and New Zealand—largely because, as the articles all noted, Rosenthal himself lost relatives in the Holocaust. The fact that a child of German refugees would come out in favor of a statute of limitations on restitution—criticizing, while he was at it, the market forces and lawyers who are working to remove the pictures from the public domain—served to validate certain ugly subtexts in the restitution debate. “Nothing in today’s art world is more absurd and insidiously destructive,” Jonathan Jones concurred in the Guardian, than the “sad spoliation” of museums by these heirs who “suddenly discover they are the rightful owners of paintings worth millions of pounds.” Bernd Schultz, a director of Berlin’s Villa Grisebach auction house, put it more plainly in a 2007 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine: “When people say ‘Holocaust,’” he wrote, “they mean money.”

In ostensibly placing the integrity of public collections above all other considerations, these critics are ignoring a host of inconvenient truths about art stolen during the Holocaust. Beyond the fact that the looting of cultural assets was part of the larger Nazi policy of exterminating an entire people, and beyond the issue of whether it is just to pretend that museums legitimately represent the public good when they illegitimately claim to be the owners of the objects they exhibit, the fact remains that restitution research is very much a work in process. As ARTnews has chronicled repeatedly over the last two decades, initial efforts to research the history of supposedly “heirless” art—like similar efforts to determine the owners of Swiss bank accounts—were met with stonewalling, obfuscation, and legal obstacles. Only now are closed archives being opened and some European governments showing a willingness to investigate the provenance of works in national collections. The result is a stream of new information about looted art.

Indeed, a show like Berlin’s “Looting and Restitution,” which traced the history of a number of collections from prewar times to the present, would not have been possible just a few years ago, says its curator, Inka Bertz: “The information and the material were not there.” Part of the goal in tracing individual case histories, she adds, was to counter the misperception that the Nazis only went after masterpieces owned by the rich. Those cases are the ones in the news now, because the paintings, unlike books, furniture, or coins, can still be identified. And objects relinquished in forced sales—like the fictitious Pinselstrich painting—were not previously considered looted art and were not included in earlier waves of restitution research and practice.

A similar logic was behind several other recent exhibitions, among them “Recollecting: Looted Art and Restitution,” at MAK in Vienna, and two shows last year at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, one of “orphaned art” in its own collection, the other of works looted by Nazi forces in France during World War II. “One point we wanted to make is that this is about the collision of art and history,” says Israel Museum director James Snyder. “Works of art take on a level of meaning that is not simply about their value or meaning as works of art.” And “Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker,” shown at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, last year, opens this month at New York’s Jewish Museum in a revised, expanded form, focusing on the life story of the dealer in Old Masters, whose heirs recovered some 200 works from the Dutch government in 2006. In the last room of the show, the museum has created an interactive version of Goudstikker’s “black book,” which lists some 1,000 works his heirs are still looking for. The government of the Netherlands, meanwhile, has announced a major investigation into all acquisitions made by national museums since 1933 to try to establish whether any artworks were seized from Jewish families.

After Rosenthal’s article appeared, Britain’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Germany’s ministry of culture quickly issued statements saying that they have no plans to impose deadlines on restitution. But Tate Gallery director Nicholas Serota, who is chair of the Spoliation Working Group in the National Museum Directors’ Conference, was more circumspect. “Spoliation has been under intensive discussion only for the past 10 years, since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998,” he told London’s Independent. “I think it would be premature to impose a moratorium now, but at some point in the future this may be appropriate.”

Maybe he should go to the Berlin Museum’s Web site and play the game.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.¤t=True
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