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.