31 October 2017

Economics and plunder

by Marc Masurovsky

If you ever wonder how an economic analysis of “enemy” assets conducted by the German plundering agency—Einsatzstab Reichleiter Rosenberg [ERR]—can shape and refine its targeting decisions, consider the case of:

La Société auxiliaire pour le Commerce et l’Industrie, based at 29, rue de Berri, in Paris.

The name sounds innocuous enough, most likely an investment group run by wealthy shareholders. Who might they be?

-Société anonyme d’Etudes et de Participations Industrielles et commerciales, located at the same address as the Société auxiliaire.
-Maurice de Rothschild
-Edouard de Rothschild
-Henri de Rothschild
-Societe de Rothschild Freres, 21 rue Laffitte, Paris
-Guy de Rothschild
-Estate of Raba Deutsch
-Pierre de Gunzbourg
-Estate of Arthur Weisweiller
-Georgette Deutsch
-Edouard Esmond
-Estate of Robert de Gunzbourg
-Andre Goldet.

[Source: AJ 38/402-404 Commissariat General aux Questions Juives, in RG 43.023M US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Reel 72, Washington, DC]

The ERR and the Vichy government engaged in a shameless rivalry to plunder as best as possible the above shareholders of the innocuous-sounding Societe Auxiliaire as well as thousands of other Jews whose property and assets they coveted. The Rothschild family, its members, its relatives, close and distant, its business partners and associates, its friends, were all viewed as "plunderable" by the National Socialists and their local collaborators, especially the French anti-semites in Vichy and in the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives, the main anti-Jewish entity in charge of stripping every Jewish person on French territory of his or her property and livelihood.

Pierre de Gunzbourg and Edouard Esmond had the misfortune of living in the building requisitioned by the ERR as its headquarters in Paris, at 54, avenue d’Iena. Esmond was a special individual--a self-professed dandy, breeder and trainer of race horses and a permanent fixture at the race track and in a Rothschild tea party. His daughter, Diana Esmond, was a pioneering golf professional as well as a gifted artist. In fact, the vast majority of modern works stolen from Esmond's apartment in Paris were signed by his daughter.

At the end of WWII, Andre Goldet was the vice president of the American Joint Distribution Committee, one of the most important relief and humanitarian organizations operating in liberated territories of Western and Central Europe. Goldet also served as a senior official of the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), whose assets were thoroughly plundered, including its library containing at least 20,000 volumes of Hebraica, countless art works that the AIU had agreed to safeguard in its building for concerned owners fleeing Paris in advance of the arrival of the Germans. But that’s another story…





29 October 2017

The top 10 plundered art articles

by Marc Masurovsky

The plundered art blog was born without anyone noticing it in May 2010.  As so many of these ventures go, nothing much was done in the first six months until December 23, 2010, when two brief pieces appeared which summarized the birth of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and events leading up to its establishment in September 1997.  On Christmas Eve 2010, perhaps on a lark, I wrote a review of “The Night of The Generals”, a campy film about anti-Hitler stirrings amongst the German general staff. My way of dipping my pinky toe in the murky waters of blogging.

2011 is when the juices began to flow and HARPs’ blog, plundered art, started to take shape.  For those of you who operate blogs on your own time, ad-free, with no staff other than yourselves, you know how much emotional and physical energy is required to keep such an adventure from becoming cybernetic driftwood and another digital artifact floating across the Internet ether.

Fast forward to October 29, 2017.

Time to take stock of the past six years, 307 articles later, all devoted in some fashion or form, directly, indirectly, to the broad topic of cultural plunder in the context of genocide, the challenges implicit in the identification and recovery of looted objects found in public and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Many articles were written out of spite, despair, impatience, irritation, annoyance, and also out of a genuine desire to inform and to share some knowledge about events that transpired more than 75 years ago and continue to haunt us today, should you ever be paying attention to them.

Politics permeate the way that we view art, and in particular art with problematic histories. This is where provenance enters into the discussion; a word that I never paid attention to until the Schiele scandalof late 1997, early 1998, grabbed headlines in New York and Vienna, shaking the art world because New York city policemen dared enter the temple of art and money that is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), to remove from it two paintings executed by the bad boy of Vienna, Egon Schiele, that were suspected of having been plundered in the aftermath of the March 1938 Anschluss from two Jewish owners, victimized by the Nazis.

Politics inform the stories underlying countless numbers of works and objects of art, because history has a nasty way of interfering with their peregrinations through time and space, from the moment they exit the artist’s studio to the moment that they adorn the wall of a living room, dining room, bedroom or languish as ripening investments in freeport bunkers located in “neutral” territories like Switzerland, Singapore, and god knows where else, out of reach, out of mind, lost to the world.

Enough of this rhetoric.

It is my pleasure to present to you the top 10 articles which have graced the virtual pages of the “plundered art” blog. In honor of David Letterman, we will count them down in reverse order from 10 to 1.

[drum roll]

10.
Deconstructing Aphrodite, published on January 28, 2012
9.
8.
ERR database-Georges Bernheim, published on April 2011
7.
Franz Marc's "The large blue horses," published on January 5, 2012
6.
5.
4.

Interestingly enough, the three top articles published by plundered art each pertain to a work of art, produced by Franz Marc, Jacopo Zucchi, and Paul Klee.

Let's hear it for.....

3.
“The red horses”, by Franz Marc, published on January 3, 2012
2.
Jacopo Zucchi, “the bath of Bathsheba”, published on August 2, 2011

And the all-time winner which has outpaced its rivals in no uncertain terms like a steed racing across the finish line at a race track of your choosing...

[extra drum rolls]

1.
Angelus Novus, Angel of History, by Paul Klee, published on February 26, 2013

Last thoughts before calling it a day:

It gives me hope, in these times of grave uncertainties where the word “ethics” appears to have been gutted of any meaning, where it apparently is still ok to steal thy neighbor’s property because you are likely not to get caught—plunder, once again, is the only crime against humanity that pays for itself— that a savant blend of art, history, politics, war, justice, and ethics, still arouses interest and even passion amongst you out there, yes, you who are spread out across the seven seas and every continent, encompassing more than 60 countries—yes, that is the breadth of our readership, however impossible it is to verify whether you are mere digital echoes resulting from spam assaults or unsuccessful hacks (as in the Russian case), or men and women of all ages (yes, we do have readers who are in high school) who have expressed an interest in the fate of art objects misappropriated during acts of mass conflict and genocide, and which the art market and privately owned as well as government-run museums refuse to return to their rightful owners for a variety of inexplicable reasons. It is for you, the reader, that this blog exists.


18 October 2017

Different shades of recovery

by Marc Masurovsky

The process of recovery of looted cultural, artistic and religious objects is daunting for several reasons:

If action is not taken right away to recover a looted object, it becomes exponentially difficult to identify its current location. In the case of losses during the Third Reich, “recovery” was an absurd notion since the perpetrators of the thefts controlled the reins of political, legal, and economic power. Hence, the process of tracing the object could only occur after a regime change and with rules in place that would facilitate such searches. Moreover, if the works confiscated or plundered by the Nazi regime ended up in neighboring countries, what rights did the claimants have to recover such works, since Nazi Germany was a recognized nation in the community of nations, for better or for worse? What rights do they have now? Since most of the domestic losses suffered by Jews living in Germany were State-sponsored, there was no mechanism in place in other nations to deem the actions of the Nazi state illegal and the confiscated property subject to restitution. Therefore, if you lost your property in 1934 and if you survived all of the subsequent events provoked by the Nazis’ fury against the Jews and others, you would have to wait for at least 12 years to assert a claim of restitution.

If your missing object is located in the hands of a new owner, regardless of how that person or institution acquired the victims’ property, the laws governing property rights and title to “legally acquired” property prevent the plundered owner from obtaining restitution of his/her looted property without going through a complex tangle of legal and political maneuvers. In the absence of explicit mechanisms put in place by the national governments of nations where such looted objects have ended up, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover them. This state of affairs endures to this day and has been a continual source of frustration for victims of plunder with minimal accommodations made by governments and courts to facilitate the process of recovery.

If the looted object is declared part of the cultural patrimony of the nation from where it ended up, the recovery process involves a direct negotiation with that nation’s government, a very laborious discussion which usually ends in utter failure. What is the word of a dispossessed Jewish owner against that of an official who upholds the notion of cultural patrimony and inalienability of art objects located in State collections, whether those objects were looted during genocidal acts? Culpable countries hiding behind such imperialistic arguments are: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, to cite the worst, Eastern European nations, all of the nations that once formed the Soviet Union.

When source nations seek the return of their looted patrimony which usually consists of antiquities illegally extracted from archaeological sites or illegally removed from religious and other sacred edifices, the wait can last for an eternity; it can also be circumscribed to anywhere from a year to several decades if the aggrieved nation is willing to compromise, accept trade offs like offer commercial advantages to the withholding nation, or agree to symbolic returns with a promise never to come back and ask for anymore as in the case of South Korea and the shabby treatment it received from France over a set of priceless manuscripts.

Aggrieved source nations include but are not limited to Greece, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Mali.

In other words, we have not made much progress in the past several decades. As provenance continues to become optional in art market transactions and most nations do not encourage their cultural institutions to be more forthcoming in publicizing the history of the objects that are part of their “patrimony,” nothing short of a cultural revolution will sway them to change course and become, god forbid, ethical.





15 October 2017

So I Have Been Thinking…


[Note: The following text is a reaction/thought piece to a recent query. Since this blog page is about thinking, these are things to think about. The raising of questions can be as important as having absolute answers.]

by Ori Z. Soltes

A recent question prompts me to think: When Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt found herself in Auschwitz as a 17-year old, she probably did not expect her or her mother to survive (her father and fiance did not). But fortunately not only did she have significant talent as an artist but in an odd turn of fate, Josef Mengele, the notorious primary physician-in-residence at the camp, noted for his horrific experiments on his limitless supply of patients, had an interest in her art. Not because he was an art devotee, mind you—although many of the Nazi brass were, infamously enjoying Beethoven by night while beating prisoners to death by day, or ingathering Rembrandts and declaiming Schiller’s poetry in between consigning victims to the gas chambers. No, Mengele’s interest was more practical: he felt that the black and white photographic possibilities available to him could not capture the emotion sliding across the faces of his patients, to say nothing of their skin tones, and he hoped that Dina’s portraits of these victims (particularly Roma victims) would serve that purpose. Apparently they did—well enough, in any case, for her to use her skill as a bargaining chip not only for her own survival but that of her mother.

By now Dina Gottliebova’s story is known to some: that she came to the United States, ending up in California where she also married a fellow artist, Art Babbitt, and both of them had successful careers as cartoonists. It was only many decades after the war, when the issue not only of the Holocaust but of Nazi-plundered art surfaced in a world that had been in a deep slumber regarding such issues, that Gottliebova Babbitt began to wonder if those portraits had survived. It turns out that seven of them had. She sustained a long legal fight with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum authorities regarding ownership of the works—at one point the director of the museum opined that the real owner was Mengele, since he commissioned and, one might say, paid for them. That Director was fired shortly thereafter, but in the end little satisfaction for Gottliebova Babbitt was achieved by the time of her death from cancer in 2009.

The Museum refused restitution, although they required her authorizing signature every time one of these images was used. They also offered her financial compensation, which she refused, but instead asked that the money the museum paid for the right to exhibit the works be donated to organizations that assist the Roma. To me the issue has always seemed almost uniquely soluble among the myriad issues that form part of the ongoing saga of Nazi-plundered art and its restitution or non-restitution. Since there are multiple works in this case—seven, to repeat—it seems to me that they could be shared between the artist and the museum, with perfect copies of those in the hands of the one while the originals are in the hands of the other (the technology of this is a no-brainer in this day and age)—cycling them every, say, three or five years, so that both sides are always in possession of three (or four) and over a complete cycle each side has had possession of all of them.

I propose this, since the most substantial ground upon which the Museum stands in refusing restitution is that they require the images as part of the exhibition-cum-educational program in which they are always engaged. So in fact they would always have some, just not all of them in their possession. (And do they exhibit all seven at once anyway? No paper conservator would advise that). Were there only one of these paintings I admit that the solution would be more difficult—although one could even propose a similar back-and-forth between original and copy over a prescribed period of time with a single work at issue. In any case, the question of the artist’s rights as opposed to an educational institution’s rights remains problematic—and it does not become simpler once the artist is gone and the question moves on toward the artist’s survivors. And then the issue of how many survivors and how many works of art muddies things further. I don’t claim to have a one-size-fits-all answer to the question—appropriately enough, since time is continuing to demonstrate that the number of Holocaust “stories”—whether regarding art of other matters—is endless.

But the question pushes my thoughts in two further, somewhat related directions. One is this: Recently a colleague from Iraq—who manages to continue her work, with little pay under unimaginably difficult conditions, of trying to document and protect all of the antiquities that are at risk in that country the tearing to shreds of which was facilitated by our own country—asked one of my American colleagues: “why don’t you return our material?” Having asserted that “you” should not include him, but the American government, he also clarified what she meant by “our material.” As some may know, our troops were empowered to remove, among other things, many objects relevant to the long-gone Jewish community from Baghdad. These are mostly manuscript-type material, documents, mostly only one or two centuries old, although the Jewish community in Iraq traces itself back to the Judaean exile following the Babylonian destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE.

I myself got to see this material. From the description leading to what I saw in our National Archives I expected thousand-year-old Torah scrolls, at least, and was sort of disappointed, frankly, that the collection was so much tamer than I had hoped. On the other hand, the work being done by the archives’ conservationists was extraordinary—spectacular, really—and there is something enormously intriguing even about report cards from schools of a few generations ago, with their names, grades, comments and photos of the students; it brings to life a community that has since vanished in a unique manner.

So what was my Iraqi colleague’s beef? That these documents are part of state-owned material, kept and carefully preserved until the Americans swept in and carried them off. The American claim—including certain important members of the American Jewish community—is that this material records a community that, mostly gone, is and will further be forgotten if we don’t preserve its memory by adequately conserving, protecting and presumably at some point displaying the documents (here’s a question: when? where?). The implication is, of course, that none of these activities was happening or can happen in Iraq.

My colleague disagrees: the documents were being cared for by the state, by dedicated state employees like her, because they recognize the importance of Jewish communities in the history of Iraq, and how important it is to preserve that part of their history—and not just that part represented by substantial ancient monuments. So we find ourselves in the crossfire of a question parallel (not identical, for various reasons) to that raised by Gottliebova Babbitt’s paintings and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Who owns this odd collection of “Judaica” since there is no longer a Jewish community in Iraq? That question cannot be disentangled from the question of who is best equipped to preserve and display these items.

We have, of course, loaded the dice by tearing apart that country, but the amazing thing is that there continue to be people like this colleague who continue to do their preservationist jobs. So if we refuse to return the material to the Iraqis, are we merely being the British Museum redux vis-à-vis the Parthenon Marbles: asserting with the superiority of a colonial power that we can take care of their heritage better than the natives can? Could we return some of it and mount a serious exhibit on the Jewish community of part of it—or an exhibit of all of it that travels for a few years before the whole thing goes back to a Baghdad where we even help assure that adequate facilities are there to receive it? I think once more of a parallel: we Americans exhibited art from Germany after the war, and when some members of the government and art community wanted us to keep it, other, wiser voices prevailed, arguing that if we did that, we would be no better than the German art-plunderers—or, as the Cold War took shape, the Soviet Red Army Trophy Squad thieves.

We always come back to the first question: what are we-as humans, as Americans, as whatever subsets of either of those categories we want to throw into the rhetorical hopper? And that leads me to a second offshoot of the Gottliebova-Babbitt question that is also very current, albeit having nothing to do with either the Holocaust or art plunder, but having everything to do with the role of art as an educational instrument—which was the main basis for the Museum’s argument against the artist’s claim for restitution. I recently led a study tour to Russia, and my group and I visited a number of smaller towns not far from Moscow—part of what is known as the “Golden Ring” for their importance with regard to churches, cathedrals, monasteries and kremlins—including Suzdal, Vladimir, Yaroslavl and a few others. I was struck in these places how—in spite of the sense one received in the early 1990s of a tearing down of public monuments; statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in particular; in a repudiation of nearly 75 years of Soviet history and oppression—there remained in very town, in the main square, some statue of Lenin, standing, declaiming, striding.

It was clear—and I discussed this with local guides and others—that a decision was made to keep these images intact, since they are part of the history of Russia, and not to tear them all down as symbols of an oppressive Soviet regime that ruled Russia for a period of time. It is essential that people remain aware of their history—the bad parts so that they are not repeated, the good parts so that they may be emulated. This is an idea particularly connected to a dictum associated with the philosopher Santayana, and the Russians seem in this case to get the idea.

Should we not get it, as well? I could not be more disgusted by the American history of slavery or the recent extraordinary upsurging reminder that racism, antisemitism and a host of other forms of bigotry still prevail in our country. But I strongly believe that tearing down public statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is not only not the answer, it runs contrary to the educational potential of art, especially public art. Do we, by the way, also tear down statues of other slave owners, like Washington and Jefferson? Or do we use all of these images as a stepping-off point to remind and educate ourselves to what we were when not at our best and to what we still need to do to make ourselves better—as individuals, as communities, and as a country?

Was Lee’s sin that he owned slaves or that he saw Virginia first and the Federal Union second—or both? The point is: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we need to ask about these things, try to understand them and use them to better our world. Instead of tearing down or covering up these statues, or carting them off to museums, why not use them as the basis for an annual, dynamic program (have schoolkids take part in a kind of American Passion Play!) in which the story of what was wrong—and also what was right—about these people will encourage us to work actively to improve our communities.

27 February 2017

Oprah and Adele II


by Marc Masurovsky

Warning:

This is an opinion piece and you—the reader—are always free to disagree with what you are about to read. Perhaps, after having spent two decades in the trenches of the art restitution movement, if there ever was such a thing,  my glasses have become tinted. Still, the inability and/or unwillingness of art market players, whether they be gallerists, auctioneers, private collectors, buyers, and brokers alike to be more forthcoming about publicizing the history of the objects with which they come into contact, remains to this day perplexing, in defiance of any reasonable argumentation, save for the old yarn that there is no law that compels one to disclose a full provenance for an art object, regardless of its origin.

In 1912, Gustav Klimt, the renowned master of the Austrian Secessionist movement, painted several portraits of a delicate, frail, wan, Jewish woman named Adele Bloch Bauer, the heiress to a sizeable fortune amassed by her husband, Ferdinand Bloch Bauer, one of the leading Jewish bankers of Vienna. Adele Bloch Bauer died in 1925.

The National Socialist German Reich absorbed Austria in an “Anschluss” in March 1938, a geopolitical act which served overnight as a suspended death sentence for the several hundred thousand Jews living in Austria at that time. The Nazification of Austria led to a systematic campaign of persecution targeting Austria’s Jewish community, punctuated by mass arrests, torture, evictions, expropriations, outright plunder of Jewish assets and later on, deportations, slave labor and extermination.

Those who could escape sought refuge in other parts of Europe and in the Americas; they managed to save themselves at great risk. Those who did not faced certain death. When the Holocaust and the Second World War ended in May 1945, three fourths of Austria’s Jews had been massacred and all of their property confiscated, either absorbed by non-Jews in Austria or dissipated, as art and other fungible assets, through domestic and international market outlets. Postwar efforts to recover expropriated property proved mostly futile for surviving Jewish family members. The Bloch Bauer paintings remained where they had been sequestered with the able assistance of pro-Nazi Austrian and German art historians and museum officials—in a Viennese museum. They hung on the walls of the Belvedere Museum for all to view and became associated with the rebirth of Austria, drawing tourists to Vienna from around the world. Gustav Klimt’s star rose until he earned a posthumous recognition as a world-class artist much like his younger colleague, Egon Schiele.

Decades later, Maria Altmann, a niece of the Bloch Bauer family who resided in California, filed a restitution claim to recover her family’s cultural property, including the two portraits of her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer, commissioned from Gustav Klimt.

Her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, fought a lengthy and protracted battle for her claim to even be heard in an American court. Her case went all the way to the US Supreme Court where Mr. Schoenberg prevailed in his bid to sue the current possessor of the paintings, the Republic of Austria, in an American court. In the end, the Austrian government was compelled to restitute five Klimt works to Maria Altmann. By 2005, the commercial value of the paintings had accrued to more than 300 million dollars, a staggering sum of money by anyone’s standards.

Once restituted, Ms. Altmann sold the paintings in November 2006 through the Christie’s auction house in New York. An anonymous buyer aggressively pursued by telephone the “Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II” starting at 74 million dollars and pressing upwards until 87 million dollars capped the anonymous bidder’s quest to acquire Adele II.

In 2014, Adele II was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it hung on the 5th floor.

The global art dealer, Larry Gagosian, spotted the painting.

One of his clients, a wealthy Chinese investor, offered 100 million dollars for the Klimt masterpiece. The anonymous owner countered with 150 million dollars. as an acceptable sales price.

The deal was consummated, thus doubling Adele II’s value in ten years. News of the transaction revealed that the anonymous buyer in 2006 was none other than Oprah Winfrey, global talk show maven, personality and role model.  Oprah Winfrey’s desire for anonymity is consistent with standard practices in the art world whereby it is considered to be no one’s business who buys what from whom. Unfortunately, such built-in opacity, disguised as a respectful quest for privacy, casts a lasting cloak of mystery over most art transactions which produces a shield that enables trafficking in illicitly acquired objects and trading in objects whose provenance is highly questionable.

Every private buyer, in an unregulated market such as the art market, has the right to treat his/her acquisitions of art, even high-priced art, as he/she sees fit.  Nevertheless, it would have been a historical moment had Ms. Winfrey announced that she had acquired the Bloch Bauer portrait in 2006.  Perhaps I am making the wrong assumption here, whereby the history of the painting moved her and fueled her quest to acquire this Klimt masterpiece, regardless of the cost. It may be that she merely viewed  "Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II" as a beautiful art object for which she was determined to spend as much money as it took to make it hers and to profit from its resale a decade later in an astute business transaction involving a Chinese buyer. It could very well be that the painting’s history was not the motivating factor in her decision to acquire Adele II. However harsh that may sound, it is a real possibility. Her silence in this matter makes it difficult to weigh in on either side of this conundrum.

Looted works of art, regardless of their value, function as perennial esthetic symbols of and silent witnesses to a painful history tainted by genocide which engulfed millions of lives over a twelve-year period; the tragic destinies of the victims are forever intertwined with and embodied in these objects.

When these looted objects are traded on the international marketplace, sometimes for substantial sums of money, the sale itself becomes the event and supplants the history of the object, thus stripping it of its painful past. The plundered object loses its context, much like an antique piece illegally removed from its matrix. The sale works like an anesthetic; it deadens history, it whitewashes like cleanser the oftentimes twisted and tragic context through which the object evolved before reaching us.
It makes me wonder: why should I care so much about the history of these objects which, oftentimes, are reduced to---objects without a past, adornments, some more extraordinary than others?

Why teach history? Why share knowledge? why the urge to contextualize works and objects of art, to restore their history, their stories?

Will the Chinese buyer who has spent 150 million dollars to own the “Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II” even care about the history of this object? Will it remind him, however remotely, of the millions of art objects which suffered a similar, if not worse fate, as they were plundered by Japanese Imperial forces on the Chinese mainland between 1931 and 1946? Does any of this matter?

A teachable moment has once again vanished like sand flowing between one’s fingers, sacrificed on the altar of money.

Rest assured, however, that 87 million dollars, 150 million dollars, do not, cannot and will not erase the taint of persecution and genocide from these looted objects. 

Ever.

25 February 2017

Talking points

by Marc Masurovsky

From 1933 to 1945, millions of cultural and artistic objects changed hands illegally as a result of Nazi persecutions. Many objects were recycled on the international art market while others were sent to the Reich. After the defeat of the Axis Powers, looted art objects were found in organized and improvised depots scattered across Europe but mostly concentrated in Central Europe. They also ended up in the hands of private individuals, businesses and government institutions, in vacant dwellings, the cellars of apartment buildings, in other words they could be found everywhere. Axis plunder turned the European continent into a veritable cave of Ali Baba.

Armed with a host of international declarations and commitments to return, recover, and restitute looted objects, the victorious Allies worked hard to locate these objects so that their rightful owners could enjoy their possession once again.

Those were heady days indeed, they did not last long. The wear and tear of administering these restitution programs frayed the nerves of Allied military authorities and their civilian counterparts busy with the task of propping up and rebuilding the defeated Axis powers as the incipient Cold War settled in like a bad case of the flu. Yesterday’s ally, the Soviet Union, became the new old adversary.

So, why did restitution fail most victims of Axis persecution?

-Short filing deadlines to submit claims to governments;
-Shock and trauma from years of confinement and persecution;
-Inability to come up with documentation as a result of expropriations, evictions and physical destruction of their property;
-Lack of interest shown by officials involved in the location and recovery of looted cultural assets.

How does that work?


Personnel responsible for the recovery of looted cultural objects, were mostly drawn from cultural bureaucracies, museums, and art historical circles. They carefully examined the claims filed by victims or their next of kin, and decided which items were worth looking for and which ones not. In many cases, claimants were told that their collections did not contain objects that were culturally significant and did not contribute to the cultural heritage of the nation. Why? Because most liberated nations wanted to replenish their cultural heritage or patrimoine which, they argued, had been impoverished as a result of Axis policies.

The quality of the object became the most significant deciding factor as to whether recovery officials would invest their resources to locate it and effect its return to the claimant. Cultural significance played a key role in assessing claims. We can only infer that the art collected by most Jewish owners was culturally insignificant and did not contribute to the cultural heritage of the nations in which they lived.

Objects favored for recovery came from the Western canon of Classical culture, which most if not all cultural advisors to Allied forces responsible for locating these objects had internalized prior to their tour of duty in Europe. Their esthetic biases led them to favor objects viewed as “masterpieces”, “treasures”, “culturally significant”, objects whose absence impoverished the cultural heritage of formerly occupied nations. Who owned those objects? Members of the elite, the upper strata of society, the 1 percent. Restitution rates were much higher amongst the 1 per cent than the 99 per cent who more often than not were forced to seek compensation in lieu of restitution.

No systematic audit of cultural losses was performed in the years following the end of the war, something that was deplored by a number of our famous “Monuments Men” who moaned about the continued absence of a central list of cultural losses from which they could do their work and be more efficient. Formerly occupied nations did publish lists of looted objects based on claims that they processed, but again, when you compare the claims to the listed objects, the “registries” reflect a small percentage of the actual losses suffered by the victims. Hence, they are grossly incomplete.

How does that affect the claims process? 

The answer is obvious.

We are here today because of the built-in prejudices that shaped the postwar policies of recovery of looted cultural objects. The justice that eluded most of the victims of cultural thefts lay in the hands of art historians, museum officials, and civil servants who imposed an elitist conception of culture on the recovery politics of the postwar era.

5 countries have standing commissions dealing with art claims. The international community came together twice once in 1998 and again in 2009 to address among other things issues of cultural losses, in vain. On both occasions, public policy failed the claimants since the 49 countries that signed on to the Washington Principles and again to the Terezin Declaration failed to put into place adequate legal mechanisms that would assist the victims of cultural plunder. This absence of State support for dispensing with a modicum of justice to victims of cultural plunders produced a political and ethical abyss into which the private sector injected itself and countless lawyers were only too eager to represent those who had been denied justice…. For a fee. The failure of the international community to address the problem of cultural restitution produced the business of restitution, the commercialization of claims, and the search for profits through the recovery of looted art. Not just any looted art. Focus was placed again on high end items, so-called treasures and masterpieces where the margins were impressive if recovery was successful. There has been an unusual concentration of restitutions centered on art objects seized in Austria after 1938 which produced half a billion dollars’ worth of revenue in the last decade and, yes, the recovery of ‘masterpieces’ from the Austrian secession. The same emphasis again on ‘masterpieces.’ Can you imagine what provenance research would look like with even 1 per cent of that amount?

How many works by lesser known artists and craftsmen are making their way through auction houses, galleries, even hanging in museums, without our knowledge? Here ignorance is bliss. The less we know, the better off we are. There are no incentives for the private sector to become transparent about the objects that it brokers. Opacity continues to reign supreme even if small successes have been recorded in several leading auction houses and a nexus of galleries and museums.

How do we achieve justice?

There are those who argue that enough is enough, let’s end these claims. Get over it, move on. Enjoy art for what it is.

On the other side of the spectrum, people such as myself who enjoy art, consider genocide and the plunder that comes with it to be an abomination that make a Bosch painting look like a tea party. We want to make sure that justice is served even if it takes us another two or three generations to achieve it.

Is that realistic? I don’t know.

Is that reasonable? I don’t know.

Genocide does not take into account what is realistic and what is reasonable. It is a total extinction event that knows no borders, no boundaries, that feeds on blood and property.

And yet, there won’t be any survivors of the Holocaust left in the next ten years. Only their heirs, and their heirs’ children and grand children, and distant relatives far removed from the crime, who clamor for restitution. Should they?

Should restitution be viewed as an inalienable right? 
Part of me thinks so, part of me hesitates. Why?

One of the single tragedies of the restitution movement is the inability of institutions to mobilize their resources to educate the public about the crime of cultural plunder and its impact on society, the traumatic nature of the loss of the coveted, cherished possession. 

Art is about being human. 

Art is an extension of our souls, isn’t it? 

To remove it by force is to rend our spirit, to deprive us of something essential.

Some call it identity.

Research into the origins of art objects is a way of restoring to the object a life, a geist, a history, a story to share with all. Without provenance research, we are poor. The public and private sectors must mobilize the needed resources nationally and internationally to enhance research on objects in collections, make research results available to all. Museums should enshrine provenance research, due diligence practices into their daily rituals, free from the strictures imposed by their legal departments who live in fear of the dreaded claimant. Yes, provenance research should be as automatic as having breakfast in the morning.

Justice comes from being fair to all. True, we can’t ascribe blame all of the time to the current possessors. But neither can they hide behind their presumptive good faith. In theory, we are intelligent creatures and should be able to ask questions about the history of objects that we buy, borrow, display. Where contention develops over the ownership of a looted item, new mechanisms should be put into place on an international level that provide an impartial forum to the victims’ heirs and to the current possessors. These mechanisms should be linked to a systematic research effort into the histories of the objects. Such an institution should be impartial and answer to the highest standards of ethical and professional conduct. Dialogue amongst nations, institutions, and individuals, in my mind, is the only way to pave the way to a proper settlement of restitution claims anchored in a desire for justice.

The international community should elevate the crime of plunder to a crime against humanity at the same time as it reinforces the cultural rights of all peoples, especially indigenous peoples. Doing the former without the latter is absurd and hypocritical. How can you talk about plunder when you don’t discuss the fundamental cultural rights of people?

Failing the above, we are doomed to decades of bitter litigation and implementing every legal and political recourse possible, including outright seizures and confiscations of objects in order to bend the will of administrations into effecting the safe return of looted objects. Governments should stop invoking arcane, obsolete, arrogant, elitist notions of culture and patrimony to deny justice to the victims of cultural plunder, regardless of who you are and where you live, and which country you hail from. Nationalistic, chauvinistic approaches to cultural patrimony help no one except the bureaucrats who refuse to acknowledge that culture belongs to everyone and not just to the select few.

Thank you.