25 September 2012

The AAMD in search of new markets

It’s not every day that one finds archival gems on the Internet, especially coming straight from the  Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).
Flash back to February 11, 2009:
World Bank
Source: Wikipedia
A delegation from the AAMD met with World Bank officials in Washington, DC.

The AAMD contingent included:
  • Andy Finch, director of policy (now co-director of government affairs) for the AAMD
"Josh" Knerly
Source: Courtesy of Hahn Loeser
The AAMD delegation met with Stephen Karam, a senior urban economist, and Christina Johnnides, a World Bank official involved in gender equality projects around the globe.

The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to explore new markets for American museum directors, collectors and dealers specializing in antiquities. The AAMD delegates expressed concerns about how the international antiquities trade suffered from “self-imposed restrictions” especially as a result of laws in the United States that placed hindrances to the free flow of antiquities. They voiced the hope that relations might improve with source countries rich in archaeological treasures and in particular develop productive “legal antiquities markets” in countries where such markets were not as well developed.

The World Bank representatives apparently balked at the idea of being part of a plan to develop new markets for the international antiquities trade. In their view, the AAMD’s desires would be viewed in source countries as being insensitive to questions of “cultural heritage”. In essence, the AAMD was naïve to think that it could foster and improve “legal markets” in the antiquities trade without taking into account the concerns of source countries about looting and preserving their cultural patrimony.

The AAMD delegation left the meeting somewhat irked. The overall impression that they took away with them was that the World Bank, which is responsible for projects “in 185 countries,” was far more interested in catering to the needs of source countries than in promoting new markets for Western interests, read American.
How frustrating!
Fast forward to 2012: This is the same organization that is attempting to sway the Senate Judiciary Committee into passing a law, currently referred to as Senate Bill 2212, that promotes the free trade of cultural objects in and out of the United States, without due concern for the origin of those objects—licit or illicit. Most perniciously, SB 2212 would bar any legal claims against any cultural object entering the United States, regardless of the taint of plunder and theft that it might carry with it while on display in an American museum or other cultural institution.

One must congratulate the AAMD for single-handedly pressing to liberalize the trade in cultural objects worldwide under the misleading and downright patronizing flag of KULTUR.

23 September 2012

Canadian problematic

The New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany,Inc. (also known as “the Claims Conference”) collated the following information on Canadian institutions and their commitment to provenance research into works and objects of art misplaced and stolen during the Nazi era, the Holocaust, and the Second World War. For further information about the Claims Conference survey, please go to http://www.claimscon.org/index.asp?url=artworks/national.

Note that in 2012 the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal suppressed on its website the link to provenance research and that the CanadianHeritage Information Network (CHIN) does not display any provenance information on the cultural objects for which it provides basic information—namely an image and a descriptive summary.

You be the judge…

Country Information

2001: The Canadian MuseumAssociation (CMA) and the Canadian Jewish Congress organized the Canadian Symposium on Holocaust-era Cultural Property (http://www.museums.ca/media/Pdf/holocaustsymposium.pdf).

2006: In part due to the initiative taken by the Claims Conference, the Department of Canadian Heritage commissioned the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO) to conduct a survey of its members by seeking information about the state of provenance research. The report can be accessed here: http://www.pch.gc.ca/pc-ch/org/sectr/cp-ch/p-h/publctn/camdo/camdo-eng.pdf.

Online Databases
a) National Gallery Provenance Site: http://cybermuse.gallery.ca

b) Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Provenance Site: http://www.mmfa.qc.ca/en/provenance/index.html

c) Art Gallery of Ontario Provenance Site: http://www.ago.net/spoliation-research

d) Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick, Provenance Site: http://www.beaverbrookartgallery.org/collections-research.asp

The plan was for the on-line Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) to add a field to the Artefacts Canada national database that would allow participating institutions to note whether individual cultural objects have a gap in provenance. As it turns out, that was wishful thinking. The Canadian government is committed to complete opacity on the question of looted art in its Federal, Provincial and Municipal collections.

The CHIN database can be found at: http://www.pro.rcip-chin.gc.ca/sommaire-summary/humaines_bases-humanities_database-eng.jsp.

Food for thought

At this point, there are two camps, one of which refuses to compromise, while the other has always been open to dialogue and exchanges of information.

The uncompromising camp upholds the sanctity of museum collections and subscribes to the theory according to which an object’s history is less important than the object itself.  Ultimately, the fate of an object is incidental whereas the possession, display and study of an object is primary. The latter believe that people and objects are intertwined and that the fate of an object is as important as the object itself.  In other words, the story behind and the history of an object are no less significant than the physicality and essence of the object under examination.  The uncompromising group has deliberately politicized the discussion over provenance to the point that it is impossible to discuss provenance without a lawyer in the room.  What this group does not wish to admit under pain of abject torture is that a provenance is per se a legal document as much as it is a historical document. Hence, any discussion of provenance must include a discussion of law.   

Plain and simple.

The object would not exist if there had not been a person creating it.  The object itself becomes the subject of a commercial transaction, an exchange, a transfer, a gift.  In short, the ownership of the object will shift at some point from its creator to someone else.  The essence of an object does not change over time.  It is timeless.  But that is not the issue at hand here.

The ownership of an object can be either licit or illicit, it cannot be both or neither.  That should be as plain and clear as day.  When an object which has been illicitly obtained enters a public or private collection as an acquisition or a gift, title to this object will be transferred from the previous owner—licit or illicit—to the receiving institution or individual.  If the previous owner entered into possession illegally, he has no legal right by which he can transfer good title or legitimate ownership to the next owner.  However, if the receiving party—the new owner—is fully aware of the dubious nature of the object that he is acquiring or accepting as a gift, he becomes party to the theft.  That should be also clear, no?

The provenance becomes the public face of these transactions—licit or not.  For that reason and for that reason alone, it becomes a source of evidence as to who owned, possessed, or held the object when and where.  Now, do you understand why there are no provenances that appear when you click on an object displayed on someone’s website? Or even better, if there is a provenance, it is so elliptical that it is in fact a work of fiction.

Hence, the school of thought that politicizes the discussion over provenance and provenance research is the same school that does not really subscribe to the rule by which the full provenance of an object should be disclosed as a means of educating the public—hence, putting one’s tax dollars to full use—as a means of educating the buyers and borrowers of these objects so that they can rest assured that they are buying or borrowing an object that is licit. 

Any attempt to hide, modify, or otherwise obscure the ownership trail of an object, is somewhat akin to the commission of a crime.  But, unfortunately, most nations do not criminalize such activity.

When an object is presented for acquisition or as a gift, the potential buyer or recipient of the gift should make sure that the provenance of that object does not hide any unsavory past which would threaten his good title to the object under discussion.  That requires a certain amount of due diligence.

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The big question is: 
How much diligence is due and acceptable?    
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The answer to that question varies from place to place and can be truly disarming.  From checking a single database to making several phone calls (much like calling references submitted by an applicant), people exercise their “due diligence” in odd ways, because, ultimately, those folks want the object that is presented to them.  Nevertheless, a reasoned approach might compel the potential buyer or recipient of the gift to demur and reject the object because the provenance simply is too skimpy for words or there are too many unanswered questions that, in due course, would come back to haunt the new owner of this object.  More often than not, those who apply such circumspection and reasoned judgment when faced with the prospect of owning a beautiful and rapturous object are few and far between.  Invariably, the vast majority relegate the flawed provenance to the imperfections of time and history and express their utter delight at the prospect of embellishing their collection with such a fine new acquisition.

13 September 2012

O Canada! Where did you go wrong?

What is the problem up there?

Way back when, at the turn of the twenty-first century, an international conference was held in Ottawa hosted by the National Gallery of Canada, where members of the art trade, civil servants, researchers, claimants, survivors, art historians, lawyers, and hangers-on from various nations met to discuss looted art and restitution as a global problem but more particularly as a Canadian problem.

After three intense days of deliberations and animated discussions, the participants to this conclave came up with a blueprint with could have led to meaningful reforms in Canada that might have raised the ethical bar, thus ensuring that museums, dealers, collectors—the private and public sectors—did the right thing, cleaned up their collections, stopped buying looted artifacts and stolen art, and educated their public and their personnel about the ethics of collecting and the evils of cultural plunder. In some respect, the Ottawa Conference had accomplished a small miracle, one that was out of reach of the Washington Holocaust Assets Conference of December 1998.

Lost opportunities. Had this blueprint been enacted, even in part, it would have placed Canada at the forefront of the art restitution movement, a title that Austria is fighting hard to gain, since it is the only country in the world with a basic and generically effective restitution law.

Twelve years later, nothing has happened of any significance in Canada, save for interesting declarations, expressions of good will, attempts at increased provenance research in various museums (three at last count) and an inability, more to the point, an unwillingness to return stolen cultural property to their rightful owners. All this inaction despite the presence of highly educated and aware specialists, art lawyers specialized in restitutions, at least in name only, as well as thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors whose property was stolen but who somehow do not weigh in to these debates. Well-intentioned people everywhere, but no one to step up to the plate and tip the scales in favor of JUSTICE. Even the Canadian Jewish Congress has vanished from the very debates that it used to stoke with glee in the late 1990s. Times have changed, indeed.

Why the sour face?

Montreal is a poster child for everything that is wrong and that is right about Canada. Forget Toronto because no one is paying attention there.

Who gets it right? Why, the Max Stern Foundation at Concordia University. This foundation, established after the death of a German Jewish art dealer from Düsseldorf who was forced to leave the Third Reich for the obvious reasons after having been forced to sell his collection of several hundred Old Master paintings.

Max Stern's gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany
Source: Concordia University
Forced sale drove Max Stern into the ground and Nazi anti-Jewish policies drove him into exile to Canada where he became a successful businessman and bequeathed his estate to Concordia University, with the caveat that it would have to establish a project whose main goal would be to recover his lost works of art. Brilliant! The only project of its kind in the entire world… No kidding.

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal
Source: Wikipedia
Who gets it wrong? The Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montreal, a wonderful, albeit eclectic, compilation of brilliant Old Master paintings abutting fairly tacky and should I say “pompier” art from the 19th and early 20th century.  Now is not the time to be snobbish about the quality of the art. Suffice it to say that, from the 1950s on, this charming museum benefited from the largesse of a handful of very wealthy donors who parted with their classical acquisitions, coupled with new acquisitions over the past several decades aiming to place the Musée des Beaux-Arts as close as possible to the pantheon of great museums in North America, if not in Canada. Mission accomplished? You be the judge. Meanwhile, in their great haste to acquire, the museum staff and board members forgot to do their due diligence and, in the process, absorbed a small trove of paintings of dubious origin. The most glaring examples are:

The Deification of Aeneas (1642-1644) by Charles Le Brun
Source: Wikipedia
The Deification of Aeneas (1642-1644), by Charles Le Brun, which once belonged to Jacques Goudstikker, a wealthy Dutch art merchant who perished accidentally on a boat in the North Sea shortly before the Nazi takeover of Holland in spring of 1940. The rest being history, several thousand pieces in his extraordinary collection were dispersed under the watchful eyes of Marshal Goering and his minions. Goudstikker’s heirs have spent decades seeking the return of these stolen works. Successes and failures have followed in quick succession, but the behavior of the Musée des beaux-arts of Montréal ranks as low as that of the Norton Simon Museum in California over its stubborn reticence to relinquish paintings that belong to the Goudstikker family, even if all of the evidence in hand is clear and incontrovertible.

Das Duett” by Gerhard Honthorst, which used to be the property of a German Jew named Bruno Spiro before being sold under less than honorable circumstances in 1934. How it ended up at the Musée des Beaux-Arts remains unclear.

"Das Duett" by Gerhard Honthorst
Source: Lost Art
As with many cultural institutions, the Montreal museum’s leadership has been sitting pat on its hands, waiting for things to not happen. That is one strategy that characterizes most museums’ responses to restitution claims, the strategy of attrition. Tire them out, stall for time, until someone passes away, namely the claimant, or the plaintiff’s treasury runs dry, or a combination thereof.

It’s even more unfortunate to have to witness this callous state of affairs when one realizes that the chairperson of the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montreal is one of the most successful Holocaust survivors in Canada. Yes, you heard it here. This is not esoteric or a mystery, no one is hiding under a rock here. Mr. Hornstein is a distinguished member of the Canadian Jewish community, a highly decorated member of Canadian society, someone to look up to and admire, especially after everything that he went through, least of which was to be deported to Auschwitz. And yet, with the moral sway and the burden of history that Mr. Hornstein carries on his frail shoulders, although he sounds like one tough guy, a man known for his boundless generosity, why does he not awaken from his dream and persuade the Museum’s board to relinquish those few paintings that are at issue to their rightful owners, thus transforming him into an even greater mensch than he already is? Why? Does anyone know? Maybe it’s because at least one painting in the collection was claimed by the Polish government. Who knows?

It’s always been a puzzle as to why it would have to come to this, time and time again, where Jewish claimants, some rich, most not, would have to butt heads against formidable members of the Jewish community, current possessors of their property, and bloody their heads against brick walls of indifference, verging on disdain and contempt. Yes, strong words these are, but truthful words, words spoken from decades of hapless and helpless observation. How many times have Jewish claimants come up against other members of the community in futile attempts to knock sense into them and invoke age-old communal ties to do the right thing much like the Torah commands them to do? Nothing doing. For some inexplicable reason, the principle of having acquired a stolen work of art in good faith primes over any moral, ethical, communal, communitarian, spiritual, religious, or plain commonsensical reason. It simply ain’t gonna happen.

So, what is to be done?

All-out war? Is that what where we are headed? Intra-communitarian warfare? Silly discourses about working hard and having suffered greatly and why should I simply hand this painting back to you? How do I know it’s yours anyway? And so forth and so on? So much unnecessary strife, so much grandstanding, why? As usual, it’s the principle that matters, on both sides of the fence. The current possessors reason like 2nd Amendment nut cakes who prize their guns over human life, while claimants invoke rightfully the wrongs of history, the certainty that injustice has been committed, brandish the incontrovertible proof that backs their claim, invoke and implore, and plead, in vain. Maybe the Mounties can resolve this, much like agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) do in the United States whose track record is practically unblemished. After all, it’s hard to challenge a badge and a gun, because there’s not much left to say. A crime is a crime. But if the hapless claimant comes unarmed, the current possessor eats him alive, arguing that there is no crime. Long live Kafka!

It is somewhat a fitting irony to have two antithetical institutions and modes of behavior co-existing within half a mile of one another in Montreal—the Max Stern Art Restitution Project on the one hand and the Musée des Beaux-Arts on the other. They embody the optimism that one can feel whereby it is possible to recover and to do right, while the other exudes cynicism and reinforces our endless pessimism that museum boards and their supporters live on another planet in some kind of art-fueled apartheid.

As yet another pessimistic sign of things to come, there is an event coming up at McGill University, also in Montreal, which appears to be underwritten by one of the top law firms in Canada. The event hosts none other than Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to discuss the intersection of art and law when it comes to questions of restitution of looted art. Well, now, who else but Glenn Lowry to discuss in the most objective and impartial manner how his institution has refused steadfastly ever since the end of the Second World War to return anything to anyone.

Glenn Lowry
Source: The Lattice Group
Quite the contrary, MOMA is always happy to preserve, safeguard, store, display, acquire, and otherwise hoard works of art that do not necessarily belong to this fine cultural institution. Perhaps, these words are on the cusp of libel. Perhaps they are, but go ask the Georg Grosz heirs, go ask the heirs of the Redslob family, go ask anyone about Alfred Barr’s disingenuous and clever ways of acquiring looted art on the European market and then on the American market, hiding behind sycophantic dealers and collectors only too happy to minister to Barr’s wishes, in the hopes that he would …. what? Curry favors to them? The art world being what it is, anything is possible, of course. But Alfred Barr was no dummy, no he wasn’t. When looted art, art looted by the Nazi government from its own citizens and institutions was put up for sale in Lucerne, Switzerland, in late June 1939, Barr didn’t dare embarrass himself by bidding in person for those works. No, he hired “cut-outs” who acted on his behalf and turned the acquired works over to MOMA without dropping a hint that the purchases had been commissioned by good ol’ Alfred.

Alfred H. Barr
Source: Wikipedia
Back to Canada... Suffice it to say that for McGill to host a presentation on a subject as complex and contentious as restitution of looted art by asking the proverbial elegant fox to lead the discussion, the fox being Mr. Lowry of course, is already a very bad sign, an indication that there is no interest on the part of this fine academic institution to provide a forum where the complexities of plunder and its consequences for institutions such as MOMA can be brought to bear for the benefit of the audience. Or one senses callous indifference on the part of the organizers of this event as they prefer to display their talent at bringing in one of the most successful American museum directors on their campus to discuss a topic where he unfortunately behaves more like a perpetrator than a Solomon, thereby cheating its public of an unique opportunity to apprehend the role of cultural institutions as enablers of historic injustices by refusing to return objects that clearly do not belong to them.

The fight continues…

Come on, Canada! Wake up! Smell the coffee! Do something useful and honorable! Restitute!