Returning Nazi-looted art in Canada

The Canadian Jewish News 29 July 2015
By Lila Sarick

The Art Gallery of Ontario has 46 paintings and sculptures in its collection which have what curators call “a gap in provenance.”

If only the magnificent Chagall, Van Gogh and Picasso paintings on the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario could talk.

The record of who owned them, and which elegant European salon displayed them, runs cold sometime in the early 1930s and then resumes after the War, often when the gallery acquired them.

Were they sold under duress by a Jewish collector, or confiscated by rapacious Nazi forces? Or is it simply that the paper trail of who treasured, bought and sold these pieces has vanished, but with no malicious intent?

The truth is, no one knows for sure.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has 46 paintings and sculptures with what curators call “a gap in provenance,” meaning the history of ownership, in this case between 1933 and 1945, has disappeared.

Across the country, in public galleries large and small, there are similar mysteries. To date, three Canadian galleries (the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the National Art Gallery in Ottawa and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) have returned looted Holocaust-era paintings to heirs. 

Unravelling the mystery of who owned a piece of art is “a hard slog,” says Lloyd DeWitt, the AGO’s curator of European art.

Curators usually work backward, starting with the time the picture was last seen, and examine auction records, dealers’ catalogues and exhibition catalogues.

 They also comb the literature for any record of who might have bought or sold the painting.

“These were vibrant, dynamic places where there were urban people, really cultured, educated urban people. There are huge amounts of traces that they left behind. The dealer records, letters to friends and the catalogues, this was the Golden Age of art history,” DeWitt says. “You have a lot of great records that were published before the war.”

Sometimes the paintings themselves bear traces of their checkered past. Both the Allies and the Nazis tended to stamp canvases as they passed through their hands.

 DeWitt recalls seeing one obviously looted painting (not at the AGO) with a giant swastika painted on the back.

Josephine Mills, a past-president of the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO) and the curator of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, recalls the story of a painting where small wooden shims had been inserted between the frame and the canvas to stabilize the painting. When a provenance researcher examined the painting more closely, she discovered the wooden pieces came from a cigar box and had Cyrillic writing. The researcher was able to identify that the painting had passed through a major collecting site for looted art on the Eastern Front.

Doing provenance research is complicated, expensive and time-consuming. Last year, the Department of Canadian Heritage gave CAMDO a $191,000 grant for six galleries to begin the research and to establish best practices in how to deal with questions about provenance.

Large galleries like the AGO had already identified the works in their collections with provenance gaps and conducted the research, but for smaller galleries, “having a work [with a provenance gap] is a scary prospect. You prefer not to deal with it – it’s such bad publicity,” Mills says. Establishing a best practices guide makes “it visible [so] that large- and medium-sized institutions can do this.”

And, as the case in Hamilton shows, even smaller galleries can own work that must be restituted.

In Lethbridge, 11 pieces with ownership gaps have been identified, but because they are not major works, it will be “incredibly difficult to do research on them,” Mills says.

While the hunt to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust sputters to its eventual end, the quest to return the art the Nazis looted is paradoxically gaining momentum.

The AGO began looking at its collection in the late 1990s, prompted by similar work being done in the United States. Canadian galleries are signatories to international agreements with a commitment to return looted art if the claim is justified.

There is no accurate count of how many works hanging in Canada’s public galleries have these ownership gaps. A voluntary survey by 11 Canadian galleries in 2007 turned up about 800 such pieces.

The trail is murky for many reasons, DeWitt explains. “Very, very few collectors keep records… partly because provenance is only of interest if it added to the work. If the information wasn’t forthcoming and didn’t add to the value of the piece, people tended not to be too fussy about keeping records.”

During the war, the Nazis created an agency specifically for pillaging art that used dealers’ and collectors’ catalogues as “shopping lists,” and amassed artwork in central depots.

But despite the Nazis’ obsession with recordkeeping, at the collection points themselves, a lot of the records were lost.

 “It’s amazing how haphazard it was, how opportunistic it was,” DeWitt says. “It was astonishing in its brutality, but surprisingly, not the centralized control you would expect.”

In the turmoil after the war, “a lot of art changed hands.” 

Further complicating matters, those collectors who fled Europe usually didn’t bring records with them, never imagining they would need to reclaim their stolen art.

If tracing a painting is difficult for galleries, it’s equally frustrating for the heirs. While there are international databases of stolen art, against which the AGO has checked its artworks, each museum keeps its own website with art that has ownership gaps, DeWitt says. 

The AGO receives queries about missing art, but they are difficult to verify. Sculptures, which exist in many different casts, are notoriously hard to identify, he says.

“If they don’t come up with a photograph or identifying marks to narrow down what’s yours is theirs, you’re at something of an impasse. They can’t advance the claim and you can’t entirely dismiss it.”

Most large galleries have in fact returned artwork, DeWitt says. The AGO returned art that had been stolen by the Russians during the war to a museum in Berlin.

Even though almost everyone who saw these paintings in Europe before the war has died, the trail has not run cold, curators say.

Records that were lost for decades are still being uncovered, and archives are being digitized and are more accessible online, Mills says.

“It’s helped lead to a new wave of research being done.”

Canada’s record on restituting art is neither remarkably good nor bad, DeWitt says. “The most egregious cases are when national museums are in court preventing restitution – that hasn’t happened in Canada.”

Sadly, that has been the case in the United States. On June 25, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) censured several museums for “improperly defending against Nazi-looted art claims,” and not living up to the spirit of international agreements.

“It is immoral that seven decades after the fall of the Third Reich, stolen works of art – some from owners who perished in the Holocaust – still hang in museums across the United States,” Ronald Lauder, chair of the WJRO and president of World Jewish Congress, said in a press release.

If someone were to make a definitive claim against one of the AGO’s paintings, it would be returned, at a significant loss to the gallery. Until very recently, galleries could not buy title insurance for their paintings. 

For now, the 46 works are still displayed at the AGO, and when requested, go on tour as well, DeWitt says.

 “We make no effort to hide them. We exhibit them as we need to. We want to be as open as possible. If a work goes on loan somewhere… and if it provokes someone’s memory, so much the better.” 

To see the 46 artworks at the AGO, visit
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