04 February 2024

Raging against the machine on a Sunday morning at the café

by Marc Masurovsky

A Parisian curator once said about the Vichy regime: It was the revenge of good taste. You could apply this statement to Nazi cultural policy from 1933 to 1945. Restoring good taste in a society corrupted by Jews, Freemasons, Bolsheviks and sexual perverts, according to Nazi propaganda. La revanche du goût. The leitmotiv for State-sponsored plunder of art objects from collectors and dealers mainly of Jewish origin. This plunder lasted for 12 years and stretched throughout Europe, going hand in hand with persecution, racial extermination, and world war.

Why are we still talking about looted art today? Because there really was no justice at the end of WWII for the vast majority of victims of cultural plunder.

Why was there no justice at war’s end? Because the emphasis of restitution was on “cultural treasures”, on those art objects that reflected “good taste” and the cultural heritage of the despoiled nations at the hands of the Nazis and their local collaborators. Who owned those items, those “treasures”? The elite vicims of Nazism. All told, 5 to 10 per cent of the population of victims. What happened to the rest? They either received a check in the mail or their claims were never honored. Simple. It was not worth the effort of postwar governments, then and now, to search for their works of art because they did not rise to the standard of “treasure.” Who was in charge of the investigations? Curators, directors of museums, art historians, culture ministry officials, even art market players. Those responsible for shaping the cultural sphere of postwar societies.

What does that tell us about justice following a genocide?

If your art did not rise to the esthetic standard set by the government and the leadership of the art world and cultural institutions, it would never be recovered and instead would recirculate in the private art market with no chance for you to recover your family’s treasures.

The law protects the current possessor. No law has ever been passed to treat victims of genocidal plunder with respect. There are no laws today that allow victims to recover their property. As it turns out, government officials and museum professionals are beholden to collectors and private art market operators. They refuse to take actions against them that might disrupt the free flow of art within and across borders.

What does this tell us? Theft of art in the context of mass killings and genocide pays for itself. Restitution policies are shaped by perceptions of art and belie governments and elites’ obsession with what they perceive to be “high art” as the highest form of expression of who we are as “civilized” human beings. What really is an art “treasure” ? To date, no one can actually come up with an answer to that question.

Art ownership is forever transformed by acts of plunder and genocide. The demand for restitution clashes with dominant ideas about the value and meaning of art in society, especially for those who have been given the power to shape the esthetics of our society. Woe on those who dared own art objects that did not fit the ruling definition of acceptable art which was then plundered and becomes forever lost in the maelstrom of the global art market for others to enjoy at the expense of the victims. We can legitimately posit that the global art market has been contaminated since the late 1930s with looted, unrestituted art,, coming from both Europe and the Far East.

Can we then deduce that the art world tolerates plunder in the name of beauty and its possession? Perhaps, because, more than 30 billion of euros worth of unprovenanced art changed hands without anyone worrying whether it was stolen or not.

We need to ask ourselves, therefore. Why do we behave in this manner with art? Why do we tolerate the worst excesses and abuses in order to own, view, and enjoy art objects?

What is so complicated about the physical return of a stolen object to its rightful owner? Why does that very act generate so much passion, so much venom especially from the irate current possessor who feels more victimized than a survivor of genocide and victim of cultural plunder?

Is it a symptom of irrepressible narcissistic behavior that seems to pervade today’s elites?

What is it about art that it can generate so much irrationality amongst those who own it, those who curate it, those who steward it? Why does their ethical compass go haywire in the presence of an object that they covet, even if it origins clearly betray acts of illicit transfers of ownership due to conflicts, social upheavals, international conflagrations or outright acts of genocide?


Why do governments do nothing to set examples and enforce ethical behavior in the art world?

Thou shall not possess, display, or trade in stolen art. That should be the mantra and yet it is rarely applied.

12 November 2023

Revisiting the numbers game

by Marc Masurovsky

Since 2011, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) has periodically addressed the problematic of quantifying the thefts of art works, art objects, and other items of esthetic value, looted between 1933 and 1945 under National Socialist rule, during WWII and the Holocaust. After the conflict, there was no internationally-sanctioned and organized audit of cultural losses suffered by the victims of National Socialist and Fascist aggression on the European continent. Therefore, experts and amateurs alike have wallowed in the murky waters of estimations of human and material losses from 1945 to the present.

Regarding the scale of human losses, the international community accepts that between 45 and 55 million men, women, and children lost their lives as a direct and indirect result of the continental conflagration between September 1, 1939, and May 8, 1945. That figure includes the six million Jews targeted for physical extermination by the Nazi government. The continental theater of operations included 15 European countries (and North Africa) which were directly involved either as a result of being militarily occupied by Axis powers, annexed by Nazi Germany, or allied to the Axis: Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Soviet Union, North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia).

Wherever the German Army and the Nazi political and security apparatus went, there followed intense repression, the physical eradication of local populations accompanied by systematic, State-sponsored acts of plunder and illicit displacement of individual and communal properties.

By the time Nazi Germany agreed to terms of unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, the Allies had realized that “art treasures” (museum-quality objects) were systematically looted across Axis-controlled Europe, stored away in gigantic depots or sold on the international art market to replenish the Reich’s warmongering coffers. Allied focus on “art plunder” went hand in hand with “rescuing the treasures of Europe” and returning them to the countries from which they had been forcibly removed. In and of itself, this task was barely manageable, but if you factored in “everything else” that was stolen, the task was simply unmanageable and would have required several decades of full-time focus by myriad specialists from the victorious nations to sort out what had been stolen by 1945, what was recovered, and what was still missing as of Victory-Day (V-E-Day).

The ex-Soviets always wanted to do things their own way, which, if you look back at the consequences of WWII on the Soviet Union’s infrastructure, human and industrial capital and cultural infrastructure, you might understand some of their reasoning. Their losses for the period of 1941-1945 are estimated in the millions. One snapshot of these staggering figures can be best summed up by their estimation of museum losses: 1,129,929 units of conservation comprising objects, rare books, manuscripts, as well as archival collections.https://lostart.ru/fr/svodnyj_katalog/

Some more elliptical estimates suggest that 20% of European art was plundered “from Jewish collectors and other individuals and organizations.” We don’t know what 100% amounts to, which would represent the universe of “stealable” European art. Hence, the 20% ratio seems a bit vapid and lacking substance. 

We still don’t really know…

In the media-hungry and attention-starved world that we all bask in, there has developed an insatiable appetite to provide numbers that explain the true extent of the plunder and what is still missing. These valiant self-interested pronouncements do not usually come from historians and experts who, for professional reasons, are reluctant to venture in such murky and troubled waters. They emanate from politicians, international personalities, media hounds, and anyone seeking attention for not more than 3 minutes but whose pronouncements will live on forever as random digital factoids on the Internet which end up restated and reposted blindly and thoughtlessly. Repeated enough times, they are true. Fact-checking, go take a hike!

So, what’s the problem exactly?

In November-December 1998, an international conference dubbed the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets took place in Washington, DC. It brought together under one roof 44 nations and a smattering of NGOs to assess where we were with respect to honoring postwar claims for compensation and restitution submitted by Holocaust victims’ families to the governments of their adopted countries and against the main architects and perpetrators of the horrors unleashed upon them and their families—Germany and its allies. Although the results of the Washington Conference were mixed, a set of eleven principles was released on its last day to guide the art market and governments on how to address the possibility that looted art objects may have entered public collections and businesses and how to resolve these claims to everyone’s satisfaction (one would only hope…). These principles avoided mentioning anything about the private art market and—in true diplomatic verbiage—kept the notion of plunder at its vaguest and limited the main perpetrators to “the Nazis.”

Ronald Lauder, who, at the time of the December 1998 Washington Conference, was Chairman of the Board of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the chairman of the recently-established Commission for Art Recovery (CAR), proclaimed that 110,000 art works were still missing, half of the total number that was allegedly stolen (or 220,000)-- a figure advanced without a hint of critical insight as to its veracity and on what facts it rested. He also placed a value on the missing works: 10-30 billion dollars (1998 value). This would assign an approximate value per object of 100,000 dollars, give or take 50,000. The average value of art objects looted from Jewish owners could be estimated grossly at between 5 and 10,000 dollars (1998) and that is still an uneducated guess. Only 5 to 15%--again, uninformed guesses based on years spent reviewing restitution claims and Nazi inventories of stolen property—reached or exceeded the values hypothetized by Mr. Lauder.

Mr. Lauder's estimates pale against those proffered by the Polish government. They estimate that their battered nation alone lost 600,000 works of art, many of which remain unrecovered. 

Since 1998, the London-based Art Loss Register (ALR), one of the most important proprietary (privately-owned) databases of stolen art in existence today, proffered an estimate of 200,000 stolen works of art, and even averred that 170,000 had been recovered and therefore that would leave only 30,000 still gallavanting about and waiting to be plucked for a handsome finder’s fee. These figures are astounding for several reasons: 1/ they are unjustified and unverifiable; and 2/ they presume a rate of restitution of more than 85%! A rather extraordinary feat which, it too, is surreally wrong. Of course I invite you all to fact-check this and contact ALR directly to verify or infirm the above.

600,000 art objects stolen, 100,000 still missing

This formula, backed up by no scientific research or historical documentation, has been the most popular mantra proffered by government officials, reporters, and restitution lawyers.

The most notable proponent of this statistic is Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, currently Special Advisor on Holocaust Affairs to the US Secretary of State and an internationally-recognized authority on the diplomacy of reparations for Holocaust victims. He first posited (as far as we can tell) these figures at an international conference held in Prague (Czechia) in June 2009. Mr. Eizenstat repeated those figures as recently as 2018 which were reported in 2019 by the Washington Post.

These figures have also been repeated in the following media outlets:
-Time Magazine,
-the Smithsonian Magazine in 2022,
-Deutsche Welle
The DW article contradicts itself when, in the same breath, it posits that 5 million artworks changed hands illegally. Which is it?
-The LA Times, whose editorial board actually wondered whether the estimates might be much higher.
-National Public Radio
-and, of course, the US Department of State

Other far-flung estimates include:

-30,000 looted art works are still missing
-10,000 works are still missing

How do we stop the misrepresentation of one of the most heinous crimes committed against culture, against humanity as part of a genocide of the Jewish people?

When someone asks you how many objects were looted during the Nazi years (1933-1945), 
1/ you do not to provide an accurate figure because there is none. 
2/ You do not know how many objects have been recovered, 
3/ you do not how many have been restituted, and how many are still missing, regardless of style, value, and importance to art world denizens. 
4/ you must err on the side of caution and state in all seriousness: between six and ten million.
21 April 2015
The day after...
23 May 2018

26 October 2023

The monetization of recovered Jewish assets

by Marc Masurovsky

The idea is not new and evolved at the end of WWII, when Allied forces and local resistance and partisan units stumbled on mountains of looted Jewish property, consisting of household goods, decorative objects (including furniture and textiles), musical instruments, libraries, works of art (paintings, works on paper, sculpture, etc.), precious stones and jewelry, precious metals, and financial instruments.

These recoveries across Central and Western Europe created an urgent need to identify who the despoiled owners were, find out if they were alive, if family members and relatives could be identified and located to claim the property. This part of the story is well-known as it involves civilian and military efforts to oversee the collection, identification, and repatriation of this found property with a view to its restitution to rightful owners. These procedures were mostly carried out in zones of Europe not occupied or dominated by Soviet military and civilian authorities.

The burdensome aspect of the mission as outlined above soon proved to be too much for the agencies responsible for overseeing this massive task of identification, cataloguing and shipping of recovered Jewish property. In order to make this problem go away, why not sell it all off? The question was reasonable in light of the chaos and confusion reigning in recently-liberated European countries, the desire of survivors to get on with their lives, and the need for governments to rehabilitate their destroyed nations and stimulate the economy by whatever means possible.

If one were to sell off this property, who would administer the process? Who would receive the funds? In what capacity? The answer was fairly simple: if the property was known to have come from Jewish owners, whether or not they could be identified, then Jewish organizations would oversee the sale of these assets and redistribute the proceeds to those who needed the funds most—survivors and their families who were dispossessed of everything that they owned.

The monetization of looted Jewish property recovered by Allied forces started in earnest in mid-1946 after the Paris Reparations Conference where Jewish organizations and agencies would oversee the disposition of recovered Jewish property for the benefit of surviving Jewish communities and their members. It was one thing to sell household goods, clothes, linens, furniture, musical instruments with no apparent artistic value, books and jewelry. But what about works of art and artistic objects with market value that belonged to collectors, dealers and businesses steeped in the art world of the interwar years? Should they be treated as bulk items regardless of who owned them and what importance or value they held? For efficiency’s sake, it was cost-effective to presume the owners dead, which eliminated the onerous and time-consuming task of actually finding them so they could collect their recovered property.

Governments got in on the act, especially in Western Europe—the Netherlands, Belgium, and France—where public sales were held from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s during which more than 100,000 works of art and objects were sold off, a number of which were traceable to victims of Nazi persecution. Local government officials sometimes concocted elaborate schemes by which to divert thousands of works of art from Allied-run depots under the pretext that their owners had not been identified, label them as “heirless property” and sell them through a network of auction houses and businesses in Europe and the United States, the proceeds of which would benefit the organizations and individuals overseeing this effort as well as local public agencies and the victims’ heirs and relatives. The architect of one such a scheme, denounced by the US Department of State, was Dr. Philip Auerbach, a Bavarian official whose portfolio included reparations and restitution of looted Jewish property.

Since then, the physical restitution of individual art objects to their rightful owners has coexisted somewhat uncomfortably with the pressure exerted by Jewish groups to treat these objects as “wholesale items” to be disposed of expeditiously for the benefit of Holocaust survivors and their kin.

Over time, this duality in treatment of recovered Jewish property looted by the Nazis has shaped the cross-generational debate on restitution of looted art vs. reparations. The end result of this duality has been a general indifference across Jewish communities towards repeated efforts by individuals and entities to recover their looted cultural property once it was identified in a particular location. Since the 1950s, the absence of support and lack of empathy towards individual claimants seeking the return of their looted art has been nothing short of astounding.

One can only speculate that unsuccessful claims filed against current possessors of looted Jewish cultural property might have had more positive outcomes had Jewish groups and communities lent their active and vocal support to these claimants as part of a general movement to seek justice and closure for crimes committed against Jews during the Nazi era.

14 October 2023

865 kilos of art flown into Barcelona

by Marc Masurovsky

There are historical documents that tend to capture the imagination and leave us dangling for answers and solutions. However, archives can be fickle, in that they are structured like labyrinths of clues, false leads, erroneous analyses and deductions, amongst which one finds pure gems. You just have to endure the pain of hitting your head against a brick wall one too many times until, at the last minute, when you are ready to throw in the towel, you read a document with a throw-away sentence or paragraph on page 20 and you have that aha moment. Yes!

Nothing like that has occurred so far—no aha moment—with the contents of a very strange headless document, unsigned and hiding in plain sight (others have already read it, but they seemed unable to digest it in any meaningful way!). This 11-sentence long document was drafted on 19 March 1945, with a handwritten indication that the intelligence actually dates to the period of 16-28 February 1945.

It speaks of 865 kilos or 1907 pounds (a truckload) of “objets d’art and pictures which have recently arrived in Barcelona on the Lufthansa airline in two consignments. The rest of the cargo was destined for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Madrid courtesy of the Spanish Ambassador to Berlin, Ginès Vidal y Saura.

Apparently, another plane flew in carrying “5 crates of religious objets d’art” which were “consigned to the German Embassy in Madrid, courtesy of the German Reich." When the rats abandon ship, they usually take their loot with them or whatever they can grab at the last minute and leave Dodge City, in this case, Berlin, en route to “freedom” in Franco Spain.

This very brief raw intelligence note was tucked into a folder of the Roberts Commission (Record Group 239) regarding goings-on in Spain during WWII. The Roberts Commission collected raw information from US, British and other Allied agencies about the illicit movement of art works and objects as well as their handlers across Axis-occupied Europe flowing into so-called “neutral countries” like Spain and perhaps even ending up in the United States.

The preceding document was a report dated 20 August 1945 from the Art Unit of OSS to a member of the Blockade Division at the Foreign Economic Administration regarding art smuggling “in the Iberian peninsula.” The following document was handwritten by Theodore (Ted) Rousseau, Jr. (1912-1973), one of the key members of the MFA&A squad in Western Europe.  His jottings pertained to Lufthansa cargo flights landing in Barcelona in February 1945. One of them—dated 10 February 1945—contained unknown cargo. The others were filled with mail, newspapers and spare parts for Lufthansa planes.

And that’s it.

In order to confirm if this document related to an authentic, verifiable event, one would have to follow the trail in the bowels of the records of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services/Record Group 226) for Spain in 1945 and a deeper dive into the Roberts Commission records (Record Group 239) since not all of its records were digitized. There’s no other way. That requires a series of trips to the National Archives, College Park MD, where the OSS records and those of the Roberts Commission are kept.

If the document relates to an actual verifiable event, the prospect of nearly 1 ton of works and objects of art arriving in Barcelona in February 1945 is a symbolic reflection of the extent to which Franco Spain was used as a transit or destination point for looted art coming in from all over Europe.

Happy hunting!

Other relevant digital sources:

“The factual list of Nazis protected by Spain”

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