Wesley Fisher does not have the Hollywood credentials of the stars of recent films like George Clooney in
but he has done much of the nuts-and-bolts work over the last two decades related to the kind of Nazi-era art restitution that these movies featured.
Fisher’s interest in the field started with his father, who was a rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan until 1929 but then went to law school and became a lawyer for the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, which led an economic boycott against Germany.
“I grew up in a family where I was always looking at where things were made — and looking hard at things made in Germany,” said Fisher, a Center City resident, who directs research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which was established in 1951 to negotiate with the West German government on reparations for the victims of Nazi persecution.
Fisher, 70, speaks in a deliberate manner about his efforts to build resources like online databases for museums or Holocaust victims and their heirs to find out if a piece of art may have been illegally appropriated during the Nazi era.
The creation of these databases has dramatically changed the field of what is known as provenance research, tracing the ownership history of a piece of art. Like a highly specifized Google search, researchers can now often examine a database rather than travel around the world to locate lost or stolen art.
Fisher calls the estimated 650,000 works taken in Europe under the Nazi regime the “greatest art theft in history.” Not only were these artworks subsequently scattered throughout the world, “but the records concerning them were also scattered, and, as a result, it has really only been in the era of the Internet that it has been possible to put much of this info together,” said Fisher, who moved to Philadelphia in 2001.
But these gains have been mitigated in part, Fisher said, by two developments: People who have knowledge of their family’s art have also advanced in age; and some museums are using that passage of time as a statute of limitations argument against lawsuits filed by claimants.
As someone who has served as a former executive director at the National Museum of American Jewish History; organizer of the Victims List Project as part of the Swiss bank settlement, which provided restitution to Holocaust victims and their heirs; and a founding staff member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Fisher has worked in a variety of capacities related to Jewish history.
Today, his efforts to restitute Nazi-era art are frequently stymied by an even more intractable opponent than museums, lawyers and politicians: time.
“This was a genocide, and therefore there are very few families that have direct heirs — children and grandchildren. For the most part, you’re talking about people where the heir” may be “a grand nephew who lives in Brazil who has no idea his family had an art collection, which is the difficulty,” said Fisher, who lost a number of his own family members in the Holocaust.
But the Nazis didn’t care much how far removed a person was from a Jewish relative and neither does Fisher. Even if it’s the third generation who is compensated, he is continuing his push to return Jewish owners’ art to their rightful heirs.
Fisher traces his interest in the field not only to his father but also to his grandfather on his mother’s side, who was one of the first Jewish students accepted at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
“I grew up on the one hand surrounded by people who were in art and on the other hand by people who were in the law and had been dealing with questions of Nazi Germany, so it’s not too surprising that I eventually moved” into art restitution, said Fisher, who is married and has two children.
As part of his work at the Claims Conference, Fisher assists and lobbies museums, organizations and governmental bodies to make information on Nazi art theft public. He is the primary force behind the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) Project, which refers to the Nazi agency dedicated to plundering the cultural holdings of Jews and other enemies of the Third Reich, according to its website, ERRproject.org.
Over the course of five years, Fisher traveled to France, Germany, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine, among other countries, to conduct research and negotiate with the various governments to open their archives, which contained the Nazis’ meticulous records of art they stole. As a result, there are now a number of online databases, including one concerning more than 20,000 items of art from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
But this is only helpful to a point since people often don’t know what to search for, Fisher said.
“Your ordinary person doesn’t necessarily have a list” of what was in the family’s collection, he said. “Therefore, if you asked what artworks did you have and they say, ‘There was this painting I remember over my grandfather’s fireplace and it was of a landscape,’ you’re never going to find it.” Or there may be the grand-nephew in Brazil.
Many museums do conduct provenance research and make an effort to restitute the object to its rightful owners; others don’t see the incentive to do so, said Fisher. In 1998, Fisher helped organize the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, where 44 countries agreed, among other things, on a list of principles to resolve issues related to Nazi-looted art.
But these principles were non-binding. For example, in the United States, the government does not have the power to force museums to search their collections for art that may have been looted and, as such, it is left largely to an honor system.
In 2014, the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Restitution Organization released a survey — done by Fisher and Ruth Weinberger, a fellow looted Jewish art researcher — that found two-thirds of the countries that agreed to the Washington Principles and other ethical codes “have have done little or nothing to implement those pacts.”
“The first thing museum professionals are taught is: Protect your collection,” said Fisher. Most museums see provenance research “as an addition to their work rather than an integral part of this work. It needs to be an integral part of their work because they should not be exhibiting illegal items.”
There has been art that was looted by Nazis found in collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and questions or legal battles over the handling of art at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York and at unexpected places like the University of Oklahoma and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
At the University of Oklahoma, school officials don’t dispute that a Camille Pissarro painting was looted by Nazis but they refuse to give up the work because officials do not want to set a precedent to return works without “knowing all the facts,” a university spokeswoman told Newsok.com. One of the school’s arguments for keeping the art is the statute of limitations. A lawsuit filed by the claimant — the original owner’s daughter — is ongoing.
“It is precisely because the information was so difficult to obtain and because these items were taken in the context of genocide that there really should not be a time limit on the claims,” said Fisher. “In many cases, the museums feel that if they are giving art to a distant relative that is not quite the same thing as restituting it to the original owner or the original owner’s child.”
Several state lawmakers have introduced legislation to force the school to turn over the painting and have spoken out about the issue, but absent such claims and bad press, “there is no tremendous push to do further research,” Fisher said.
The American Alliance of Museums established standards in 2001 instructing museums to identify “covered objects” — those that had been in Europe and underwent a change of ownership between 1932 and 1946. These pieces could have been in continental Europe and looted by Nazis — or it could just mean that the documentation is incomplete. The guidelines instruct museums to make information on those objects public — ideally in an online database, but in 2006, Fisher conducted a survey of U.S. museums and found that the majority had done little provenance research.
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whenever the institution wants to purchase or is offered a piece of art, researcher Cathy Herbert said, she runs the item through various databases to make sure there is nothing suspicious in its history. The museum now has an online database of all 409 covered objects in its collection.
Herbert said that the museum applies the same level of scrutiny to potential acquisitions as well. A donor recently offered a painting by an important French artist to the museum, which, along with the Barnes Foundation, is a member of the alliance. Herbert examined the French painting — which she declined to identify because the matter has not been resolved — through the Art Loss Register, an online database, and found that it may have been looted, possibly during the Nazi era. She said all interested parties on the case have been contacted.
“We do our due diligence” if we “find out there is a question” about a piece, said Herbert, the museum’s coordinator of collections research and documentation.“We refuse to accept the gift at least until the status has been resolved.”
In 2010, the museum contacted the heirs of German Jewish art dealers, a family named Oppenheimer, after learning that a tapestry in its collection had been taken and illegally sold by Nazis in 1935. The museum reached a financial settlement agreement with the Oppenheimer heirs in 2011 to keep the tapestry in its collection.
For its part, The Barnes Foundation has no online public database, stating instead on its website that there are 150 covered items out of more than 4,000 in its collection. Albert Barnes, the founder, amassed most of his collection in the 1920s.
“The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been pretty good about this, and the Barnes is sort of an unknown,” said Fisher.
The Barnes Foundation stated in an email to the Jewish Exponent that it had “been diligently researching the provenance” of the collection. The foundation has not discovered any information that “casts doubt on our ownership of any item in the collection,” and plans to publish information in an online database after a curator is hired, according to the email.
Fisher and other provenance researchers have now turned their attention in part to constructing archives containing lists of work from art dealers before and during the Nazi era as well as postwar claims. He is scheduled to travel to Serbia in May to advise leaders on conducting provenance research and organizing a claims process in that country.
He said he does not accept museums’ excuses for not doing everything in their power to make sure suspicious art is not on display or in a back room.
“Ultimately it’s a societal problem,” said Fisher. “It’s not a question of whether the museum that is giving back the object feels good about itself.”