Canadian Museums to Root Out Nazi Loot

Artinfo 3 March 2014
By Sky Goodden


Canada is now leading the cause to root out and restitute Nazi-looted works in Canadian museum collections. The country has been anointed the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (last year it was Belgium), highlighting and abetting their recent efforts to make collections transparent, and restitute stolen works. To this end, and with a significant $191,000 grant from Canadian Heritage, the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO) has undertaken the project, imploring its members to volunteer their collections for provenance analysis on a first-come, first-serve basis.

 The six museums that first answered the call were the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Art Gallery of Windsor, the McMaster Museum of Art (Hamilton), the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery (Lethbridge, Alberta), and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. They will provide the initial subjects of what CAMDO hopes to be a long and far-reaching operation.

It bears remembering that this isn’t Canada’s first such effort: the Max Stern Art Restitution Project has provided a standard for restitution efforts in the country, gaining notice on the international stage. However, the CAMDO project does mark the first collaboration between multiple institutions in Canadaand signals government recognition that feels long overdue.

In an effort to gain greater insight into the project and its implications, ARTINFO Canada approached Janet Brooke, a provenance-research specialist who’s been commissioned to lead CAMDO’s investigation. She touches on issues of timing, popularity, and the tricky issue of ethics.

Why did the world wait until the late 1990s to focus on this issue?

Certainly that’s the question that comes to mind, isn’t it? If you look at the situation worldwide, there was in fact very little attention given to the issue following the end of hostilities, and the whole phenomenon of what everyone’s calling “Monuments Men.” Immediately following the war, and even in the final months of the war, though, Allied authorities were starting to realize to what degree wholesale and systemic looting had taken place by the Nazi regime in the countries that it occupied. There was an enormous effort made at the close of the war and the subsequent years by Allied teams to locate this material (a lot of it having been squirreled away in various caches and salt-mines). Many thousands of works were restituted to survivors or their heirs.There are many thousands of works still, though, lurking about in public collections.

When did this particular initiative begin for CAMDO, and what’s the significance of its timing?

You can first track it back to over a decade ago, when the issue of Holocaust-era provenance research really started to emerge quite dramatically, particularly following the Washington declaration of 1998. A number of countries, including Canada — I think 33 or 34 countries in total — met to discuss and find the means through which more attention could be brought to the issue of Holocaust-era provenance work. We began to address the issue in Canada, given our rather specific circumstances to do with geography, expertise, funding opportunities, and the nature of our collections.

Ontario museums appear to be favored in this project?

Not at all. The way that it worked was, according to the maximum amount the grant might afford us, our president reached out to its membership — keeping in mind that many of our members are representing institutions that don’t even collect, like the Power Plant, for instance — asking for expressions of interest on a first-come, first-serve basis. These six are the first to come forward. It’s CAMDO’s hope that other institutions start to join in for future phases of the project that become possible.

What’s the incentive for an institution to join this cause? They risk losing works from their collection. Is it simply through good will that they sign up, or is there another element at play here to inspire their participation?

Essentially because the awareness worldwide and amongst the general public has become increasingly sensitized to this issue, there’s an increasing disinclination for any museum director who thinks or knows there might be a work to which he or she does not have clear title, to not look into it. Besides the overarching issues of justice and ethics involved here, the stewardship’s role is to ensure, among many other things, that its permanent collection is indeed its collection. So if there are works where the chain of ownership is in fact unclear — or worse, then the director would certainly want to know that, and undertake steps to correct that situation.

Have you had the personal experience of seeing a work restituted?

In what I’ve done, I would say no. But I have had the great satisfaction of finding closure on a number of works in one way or another.

What is the effect of this issue’s recent exposure, as seen in “Monuments Men,” for instance?

Because of this recent Hollywood movie, and books (some of them scholarly, some of them more popular), nary a week goes by that we don’t see something in the press about some kind of find or restitution regarding this issue that’s very large and complex. When I look back, fifteen years ago, you simply never saw any interest in this issue in the press.I would also say that this is a great start, and that it shows great faith. I think the stepping-up of these six institutions is a really positive sign that shows to what degree the whole era of provenance research has entered the public imagination. It’s a very healthy thing, and a good sign.

But let’s not kid ourselves. For all nations large and small, this is going to be an extremely long and hard road to hoe. There’s a great deal of work to be done, and it will take many years. There’s no guarantee of conclusions. But more and more documentation is becoming available, and archives are being digitized and being made available, and it compounds the opportunities for success. Going forward, that’s an extremely healthy thing — not just for museum collections, but obviously for those claimants and heirs of claimants who are still seeking some form of closure and justice.
© website copyright Central Registry 2022