Great art that may have been looted can be held only provisionally for the nation
Culture is universal, yet the holdings of the National Gallery in London are dominated by male artists. Of 2,300 works in its collection, only 20 are by women. Little wonder that the gallery should have stumped up £3.6 million this year to buy a masterpiece titled Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by the 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi.
The painting is especially poignant for modern mores as it alludes to Gentileschi’s torment as a victim of rape. Yet there is a problem. The painting does not have a provenance for the period 1933-45. There is no documentary record of when and how it was acquired by its French owners, but the absence of records of ownership is enough to put it on the gallery’s “watchlist”. These comprise works that may have been looted during the Nazi era.
It is impossible as things stand to recreate the history of ownership of the painting and there is no evidence that it was illicitly acquired. It should thus be treated and admired as a national treasure. Yet, given this tortured history of Europe, it is essential that the painting be held on trust, pending new information on its ownership history.
It is a moral issue. The first three decades of the 20th century in Europe were a time of immense flowering of Jewish cultural life, including the painstaking collection of art and literary manuscripts. These were stolen, and the libraries (such as that of the great Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig) destroyed, long before the Nazis embarked on the attempted annihilation of European Jewry itself.
The Nazis may have been philistines but they knew the monetary value of their thefts. These were not spoils of war or art acquired (like the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum) as a legitimate transaction. If a work of art has been stolen and the descendants of its rightful owner are ever found, it must be restored to them.