14 October 2018

Washington Principle #7: A Critique

by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note: Due to the momentous nature of the upcoming international conference in Berlin, Germany, entitled "20 years Washington Principles: Roadmap for the Future," it would be worthwhile to revisit these Principles and to put them through a linguistic, methodological and substantive meat grinder, and see what comes out of this critique. There will be eleven articles, each one devoted to one of the Principles enacted in a non-binding fashion in Washington, DC, on December 3, 1998.]

Principle #7
Pre-War owners and their heirs should be encouraged to come forward and make known their claims to art that was confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted.

In June 2011, we noted the following:

“There is nothing good to be said about Principle VII except for the fact that there are no solid mechanisms put into place to allow all owners to come forward and make their claims known regardless of socio-economic background. It is one thing to make their claims known, but the purpose of publicizing a claim is to obtain justice. Principle VII is uninformed and useless until effective national and international public policies are enacted to systematize the processes inherent to this principle and protective of the rights of claimants to seek redress without penalties.”

Seven years later, there has not been substantial progress in establishing mechanisms for “pre-war owners and their heirs to come forward.” Those who are directly related to the victims of plunder are now the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In other words, they are three to four times removed from the crime and the loss suffered during the Third Reich. What little memory of the events stayed with the victims proper has all but vanished and few of those evidentiary strands have been transmitted to the next generation so that it can sue for redress.

The more likely path is from the outside—researchers, genealogists, aggressive lawyers, historians and the like—are those more likely to stumble on the evidence of the crime and the losses suffered by individuals. These external players are more likely than not to contact the heirs of the pre-war owners with the evidence of their losses. For a fee, unfortunately. In this regard, governments have created little monsters on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, by not rising above the fray and taking on the mantle of justice for the victims of plunder. Leaving the field wide open for entrepreneurs and private sector players to set the rules for how research is conducted and, more importantly, how claims are to be handled and prosecuted.

Seven years after our initial assessment of the effectiveness of Principle #7, it is time to call it for what it is—a total failure and an open invitation for profiteering at the expense of the claimants, of history and of justice.

Principle #7 could be rewritten and expanded as follows:

The parties signatory to the Washington Principles of December 3, 1998, must ensure that all efforts will be made to disseminate information to as wide public as possible regarding the mechanisms by which pre-war owners and their heirs can make their claims known. Also, pre-1933 owners and their heirs must be encouraged to submit their claims for artistic, cultural and ritual objects confiscated, misappropriated, sold under duress and/or forced sales, subjected to other forms of illicit acts of dispossession by the Nazis, their supporters, profiteers and Fascist allies across Europe between 1933 and 1945 and not subsequently restituted.

10 October 2018

Washington Principle #6: A Critique

by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note: Due to the momentous nature of the upcoming international conference in Berlin, Germany, entitled "20 years Washington Principles: Roadmap for the Future," it would be worthwhile to revisit these Principles and to put them through a linguistic, methodological and substantive meat grinder, and see what comes out of this critique. There will be eleven articles, each one devoted to one of the Principles enacted in a non-binding fashion in Washington, DC, on December 3, 1998.]

Principle #6
VI. Efforts should be made to establish a central registry of such information.


“a central registry”:

The best way to kill an idea is to promote it and then abandon it. Ever since the “art restitution” movement kicked up some dust, there was talk of creating a central database of all art losses suffered by Jewish owners between 1933 and 1945. As the saying goes, talk is cheap while money talks. In the heady days of the late 1990s, much like the frightening realities which have set in worldwide as of 2016, it was easy to discuss the creation of a central database—a digital registry—of all cultural losses because no one had done it and, to accomplish this minor feat, one needed access to documents and lots of them (Principle #2), as well as a heap of resources and personnel (Principle #3). Since neither were forthcoming, then and now, twenty years later, the proposal put forth by the framers of the Principles is somewhat disingenuous.

After all, do they understand what effort it takes to undertake a central registry of all art
“confiscated” and displaced by the Nazis and their allies? It is a massive undertaking, which requires international cooperation, international partners, staff at multiple sites, a rugged online database, even more rugged servers, and teams of data extractors and data entry specialists. In 2018 dollars, a multi-million dollar affair. In 1998 dollars, it would have been much cheaper to accomplish.

The arguments around a central registry are legendary and date back to the aftermath of WWII when some of the Allied cultural advisers working in Munich, Germany, were bemoaning the fact that there was no central card index of art losses available for them to use as a reference source.

That discussion of a central registry died miserably especially when it became obvious that large postwar NGOs like the recently-established UNESCO did not succeed in taking over from the Allied powers the mantle of documenting and researching art losses suffered by victims of Nazism and Fascism.

In the 1990s, the idea has been repeatedly pooh-poohed as too expensive, impossible to undertake, and so forth. Meanwhile, as the arguments linger on from year to year, nothing gets done, which seems to be the point, no? So, proposing a central registry of art losses is tantamount to crying: The King is dead! Long live the King!—Substitute queen for king if that is your preference. In other words, it will not get done by the signatories of the Washington Principles because they have no interest in such a project. Why did they agree to it? Why sign off? Because it was easier to sign off than to challenge the idea, a hint that the intention to transform the principles into “hard law” never existed.

In June 2011, we noted that, based on the evidence, “Principle #6 is hereby decreed to be an unadulterated sham.” We still believe it today.

Principle #6 could be rewritten and broadened as follows:

Efforts shall be made to establish a central, fully searchable and interactive digital repository of artistic, cultural and ritual objects confiscated, misappropriated, sold under duress and/or forced sales, subjected to other forms of illicit acts of dispossession by the Nazis, their supporters, profiteers and their Fascist allies across Europe between 1933 and 1945.

Washington Principle #5: A Critique

by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note: Due to the momentous nature of the upcoming international conference in Berlin, Germany, entitled "20 years Washington Principles: Roadmap for the Future," it would be worthwhile to revisit these Principles and to put them through a linguistic, methodological and substantive meat grinder, and see what comes out of this critique. There will be eleven articles, each one devoted to one of the Principles enacted in a non-binding fashion in Washington, DC, on December 3, 1998.]

Principle #5:
V. Every effort should be made to publicize art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted in order to locate its pre-War owners or their heirs.

“Every effort should be made to publicize”:

Whose job is it in the first place to do so?

It’s a nice idea but effort takes …. effort on the part of those who are expected to make such an effort.

Historically, governments, their ministries and agencies, have taken on the mantle of outreach in order to inform targeted populations and communities about the possibility for them to claim looted objects which may belong to their relatives, close or distant, so that they could consider a claim for restitution.

Decades after the crime of plunder has stripped millions of people of their belongings, it’s not so clear who or what is responsible for displaying such an effort.
Individual museums built web pages that contained images and descriptions of objects which they had selected as falling within the broad category of having “unavoidable gaps” for the period 1933-1945. Then the American Alliance (ex-Association) of Museums (AAM) built a website called the Nazi-era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP) whose aim is to bring together all of the objects identified by American museums as displaying a provenance gap for the relevant period (1933-1945)

Auction houses have no reporting responsibility. Galleries have no reporting responsibilities and, therefore, are not required to make an effort in identifying these kinds of objects which they buy and sell.
Are Jewish organizations responsible for this publicity effort? The Christian world always expects Jews to take care of their own issues as displayed fervently after the end of WWII when the US Army wanted to extricate itself of the business of caring for objects looted from Jewish victims and in 1946 when the international community designated two organizations—which happened to be Jewish—to oversee the looted asset question as it applied to Jewish victims, of course.

With such lack of specificity, it is difficult to understand what the framers of the Principles had in mind when they called for “every effort”.

Even if the co-authors of the Washington Principles thought that Jewish organizations would handle the publicity effort around objects that could be claimed, they still had to be coaxed into it, considering that no single Jewish organization was even remotely interested in assisting Jews with their restitution claims for looted art.

With all of this in mind, is Principle V a diplomatic expression of wishful thinking on the part of its framers? Did they give this issue much thought before they sat down and vaguely announced that “every effort should be made”? It’s good to remember that, without Principle I—identification--, Principle II—access to archives—Principle III-resources and personnel--, Principle V has no reason to exist.

By all accounts, Principle V does not rise to the standard of a self-governing principle. It requires crutches and other aids so that the average reader can understand it.

In June 2011, we noted that “Principle V is a double-edged sword and the dull edge of the sword is on full display.”

Principle #5 could be rewritten and broadened as follows:

In order to facilitate the location of pre-1933 owners and/or their heirs, every effort shall be made to draw up and disseminate to as wide a public as possible all information regarding artistic, cultural and ritual objects confiscated, misappropriated, sold under duress and/or forced sales, subjected to other forms of illicit acts of dispossession by the Nazis, their supporters, profiteers and Fascist allies across Europe between 1933 and 1945 and not subsequently restituted.

Washington Principle #4: A Critique

by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note: Due to the momentous nature of the upcoming international conference in Berlin, Germany, entitled "20 years Washington Principles: Roadmap for the Future," it would be worthwhile to revisit these Principles and to put them through a linguistic, methodological and substantive meat grinder, and see what comes out of this critique. There will be eleven articles, each one devoted to one of the Principles enacted in a non-binding fashion in Washington, DC, on December 3, 1998.]

Principle #4
IV. In establishing that a work of art had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, consideration should be given to unavoidable gaps or ambiguities in the provenance in light of the passage of time and the circumstances of the Holocaust era.

In view of the number of legally-trained individuals who are involved in international diplomatic negotiations and the drafting of complex documents for submission to representatives of many foreign nations, one would think that better care would be paid to vocabulary.

“work of art”:

The definitions vary for this word grouping. For some, “work of art” is interchangeable with “art piece” or “artwork” or “objet d’art”. For others, it has a narrower and more elitist meaning: “an object made with great skill, especially a painting, a drawing, or a statue.”  One way or another, high quality is synonymous with those words. And those words exclude all other “objets d’art” which, ironically, serve as synonym for “works of art.”

“consideration”:
Another way of saying “Careful thought” or “deliberation.”

“unavoidable gaps” in provenance:
As there are no uniform standards that define what an “unavoidable gap” is in the history of ownership (provenance) of a cultural, artistic or ritual object, let’s give this our “consideration.”

It is a well-established fact that we will never know everything about the history of an object. The older it is, the less likely it is that we can reconstruct a detailed path of ownership for the object in question. However, the obverse is equally true. The more we search for information about the history of an object, the more likely we are to develop a clearer history of that object, notwithstanding the “unavoidable” gaps. But one important function of research is to narrow these “unavoidable gaps.” If Principle III is properly put into effect, chances are that researchers can fill these gaps. But to what extent can they? It all depends on access to materials (Principle II) in public and private archives that can shed light on their owners and the objects they owned.

If we follow the dicta of global museums such as the British Museum, the provenance will contain only “relevant” and “important” information. Another layer of complexity, another filter of information added to the task of “filling the unavoidable gap.”

Quite clearly, this principle was written with a Museum association in mind which rails constantly against those who demand that their provenances be impeccable and gap-free. No one has and will ever make such a request from a museum or gallery or auction house.

Gap-filling (not like at the dentist’s) pertains mostly to the 1933-1945 period. It would be good practice on the part of museums, and the rest of the art world, to exercise enough diligence so as to include as much “relevant” information as possible in the provenance of an object under their care and ownership.
Gaps are unavoidable because no one has paid enough attention to them and considered them to be “normal.” If the art world changes its behavior towards the writing of a provenance, the gap issue might wither away naturally. But, being the optimist that I am, it will take at least twenty years for such behavior to change on a systematic, industry-wide scale across continents.

“Ambiguities”:
That word can only be addressed through careful research. The structure of the provenance itself allows its author or anyone else for that matter to use footnotes in order to address the “ambiguities” inherent in the provenance. That strategy has been in force for quite some time and appears to work very well.

“passage of time”:

Time is elusive and so are record-keeping and people’s memories. Passage of time is a non-issue and should not even be included. In fact, when one reads that expression, one can only see a veiled threat by a museum invoking “latches” and flinging it at the claimant for not having “done enough” to research the fate of his/her object.

“circumstances of the Holocaust era”:
A lovely historical misnomer which reduces the relevant domain of inquiry to the period 1940-1945. In other words, it is a misreading of history and is inconsistent with the phrasing “Nazi era” which lasted from 1933 to 1945.

In June 2011, we noted that “Principle IV is the kiss of death for claimants. No one follows this Principle because provenance is everything. If there is a gap in the provenance, it is because the information is not available. If the information is not available, it is because access is being denied to the relevant information.” Hence, Principle IV is wishful thinking at best and utter diplomatic cynicism at worst. It can only be salvaged if action is taken to enforce Principles II and III.

Principle #4 could be rewritten and expanded as follows:

In establishing that a cultural, artistic and/or ritual object has been confiscated, misappropriated, been subject to a forced sale and/or other acts of illicit dispossession by the Nazis, their supporters, profiteers and Fascist allies across Europe between 1933 and 1945 and not subsequently restituted, every diligent effort shall be made to produce as complete a provenance as possible by filling gaps and resolving ambiguities produced within and/or facilitated by a context of racial persecution, warfare, and genocide during the entire period of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the Second World War, across Axis-controlled Europe between 1933 and 1945.