09 January 2021

“Happy” New Year 2021

By Marc Masurovsky


[This opinion piece reflects my own views and does not necessarily represent those of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and its members.]


The word “happy” should be framed with heavy quotation marks.  In year two of a worldwide pandemic triggered by the seemingly unstoppable spread of a deadly virus popularly known as COVID-19, our everyday routines have been permanently upended. Each and everyone of us has had to rethink how to make ends meet in a largely virtual world. Millions of lives have been cast into disarray and oftentimes shattered, as a confluence of factors generated and fueled by self-centered human behavior has exarcerbated an already terrifying daily reality:

-inadequate and sometimes cynical government responses to the health crisis—that’s putting it mildly!—and their lukewarm initiatives to stanch the damage they have unwittingly stoked;

-citizens’ extraordinary expressions of self-righteous entitlements about not taking even the most elemental hygienic precautions—mask-wearing, social distancing, limiting involvement with and participation in group events and gatherings—just because they can…;

-illogical and irrational politicizing of basic civil and civic behavior aimed at curbing and neutralizing a deadly virus… just because…


Our exit from 2020 allowed us to breathe a sigh of relief with hopes of return to some kind of “normalcy”. That wish was quickly interrupted by the State-sponsored right-wing populist assault on the Congress of the United States on 6 January 2021. The product of decades of discontent and radicalized feelings of alienation, disempowerment of a large segment of the American populace, mixed in with ignorant and uneducated fantasies of Aryan supremacy and profound dislike for the “other” whom these elements have routinely blamed for their own suffering and sense of hopelessness in a fast-moving, rapidly-evolving world. A lethal cocktail that American politicians and elected officials, including the outgoing president, have stoked and manipulated for their own base motives, themselves nurtured by idealizations of what it would be like to be in charge of a largely monolithic, authoritarian, violent and very “white” system.


Knowing all of this, is it still possible to continue discussing crimes against culture resulting in the massive displacement of cultural objects owned by individuals or entities targeted for their “otherness”?


The answer is a resounding “YES.”


The victims of cultural plunder are resoundingly the “others” who don’t fit into a white supremacist, nationalist, monolithic view of a world bereft of difference.


Advocating on their behalf means that we uphold their essential humanity, their inalienable right to exist, thrive and create in this world of ours which is theirs.


Fighting for the restitution of objects displaced and plundered during the Nazi era, or during conflicts around the world, or resulting from attacks against indigenous communities worldwide, means that we fight for our collective and individual rights to culture, regardless of place and context.


Encouraging and promoting a broad-based and democratic approach to the documentation of these displaced objects by acknowledging the stories of their creation and their creators as well as their tumultuous movement occasioned by displacement, theft, misappropriation, and recycling on the international art market.


We are all equal and we are all in this together—regardless of race, creed, religion, ethnicity, and belief.  And together, more than ever, we shall prevail, if not for our sake, for the sake of our children and grand-children and their progeny until the ends of time.









20 September 2020

Research and sanity during a pandemic

by Marc Masurovsky


Together with millions of men, women and children around the world, we have found ourselves trapped in a reality that we did not invite or want. 200,000 American citizens have lost their lives to a rampant virus which has not spared anyone that it comes into contact with. Failed public policies, reprehensible personal lifestyle choices and political callousness have only exacerbated what experts say was a highly preventable health crisis. 


The pandemic has taken a horrendous toll--emotional, physical and economic—on entire communities across the US and around the world. Although wearing a mask has turned out to be a no-brainer cheap way to stem the viral onslaught, for many, it’s an affront. An aspect of human behavior which I cannot fathom.


On a personal note….


My bedroom/study has become my operational epicenter, a small desk on which all of my tools are assembled—laptop, external drives, headset, printer, pens, post-its, lamp, the requisite pile of books, small teapot, tea cup and phone.  I do my best to keep the tea from spilling on the electronics.


My interactions with the outside world are even more filtered and skewed than before, relying almost exclusively on the technology of available bandwidth and uplinks to gain access to the internet, cable television, and Netflix. Staying sane is priority number one, tied with staving off COVID-19. The two have become unhappy bedfellows. Wanting to be hugged and held tight as a sign of human contact and love appear to be far off into the future.


On a professional note….


How can one make a project move forward that is anchored almost exclusively in on-site archival research? The National Archives are closed, as are the Archives of American Art (AAA) and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM.  The same with museums, universities and libraries.  Fold3.com (a digital container which contains a comprehensive sample of critical records pertaining to plunder during the Nazi years) and other research-focused websites have proven to be (relatively) lifesaving (not by much, though), making it possible to retrieve relevant documents. However, those digital resources have now been exhausted. 


The shuttering of archives on both sides of the Atlantic has put on hold, delayed and canceled entire research projects, many of which rely on cohorts of researchers and analysts plowing through archives in Paris, Munich, Koblenz, the Hague, Amsterdam, and London, to name a few. Furloughs and layoffs of research personnel across borders and oceans have been the inevitable consequence, sadly so, especially in the precarious freelance and independent research community but also in research facilities, small and large museums alike, and other cultural institutions. The long-term damage of these surgical operations against human capital is incalculable.


Can research projects survive in such a restrictive environment once on-site research and consultation of documents are no longer possible?  Is the Internet really cracked up to serve as a digital surrogate of real life? In the case of deep archival research, the short answer is no.  Data aggregators compiling information about works and objects of art sold at auction for the past three decades provide some limited solace which only fuels more anxiety and apprehension at the thought of conducting in-depth research.


Worst case scenario: the research stops, I/we hoist the white flag out of resignation and surrender in the face of a hopelessly vain quest to gain access to and obtain research materials.  


On a happier note…


The pandemic has put to the test long-established and newly emerging networks of affection and affiliation that bring together researchers, museum professionals, historians, cultural officials, archivists and librarians in many different countries and disciplines.  I can report with great relief that, so far as I have experienced and witnessed them, the ties that bind have so far have seemingly withstood the test of fractured physical encounters as evidenced by the amount of virtual assistance provided by archivists and specialists (so far) in the United States, France, the Netherlands and Germany. They have generously shared thousands of images of archival documents in unexpected expressions of collegiality and international cooperation.  Zoom conferences can only do so much but are a pale substitute for face-to-face organic encounters in enclosed spaces.


On a more personal note, the years-long hoarding of print and digital copies of archival documents has proven to be extremely useful. Under non-pandemic circumstances, this behavior might be viewed as suspect and an outward symptom of a serious psychological disorder.  Still, these virtual and physical mountains of documents have proven to be a lifesaver as they contain much relevant information, in most cases with the appropriate archival citation.


The continuing bad news is that the global health crisis shows no weakness, travel restrictions remain in place especially between the United States-major culprit in sustaining the pandemic—and a host of countries around the world. The better news is that archives are reopening in Western Europe under less than favorable circumstances for sustained research. The same goes for libraries and museums. Access—albeit limited--is resuming under restrictive conditions.


The next few years are going to be extremely challenging. In our narrow niche we explore the devastations wrought against culture, cultural rights and cultural goods, and the complexities of locating and recovering these displaced objects wherever they are.  Access to documents and know-how is essential to unravel the interlacing networks that favor and shape the displacement and dispersal of these objects over time and space. Without access to primary sources and other research efforts, it is difficult and oftentimes nigh impossible to understand the what, where, when, why and by whom of the problem. In order to mitigate our inability to gain access to documents, it is imperative that we shed whatever reluctance and reservation we may have about opening and sharing the knowledge that we have amassed over the years. We need to make it available to those who need it—personal company included--, so that all of our efforts, individual and combined, are not lost and wasted and they can be sustained, strengthened and disseminated so that we may all profit for our own good and for the common good.


Stay safe… This too shall pass. But at what price?

06 April 2020

Historical continuities: Art dealers in Paris

by Marc Masurovsky

While rummaging through the papers of the Perls Galleries located at the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC, I stumbled on a June 1967 listing of members of the Paris-based “Comité professionel des galeries d’art” [equivalent of the Art dealers association in New York] 24 years after the liberation of Paris in late August 1944.

If you take a close look at it, names of victims and recyclers of their confiscated works and objects co-exist in a surreal club of art dealers and gallerists who, like in a Peyton Place-like farce, know of each other’s dirty laundry but continue to do business, because, you know, business first, ethics later, justice? What’s that?

Out of 140 gallerists members of the local dealers' association in June 1967, 34 had been active during the period of German occupation. And here they are still doing business in groovy mid-1960s Paris. Why should that worry us? It all depends on the way you look at the transition from a wartime art market to a postwar art market. On the one hand, it must be somewhat galling to be conducting business amongst individuals who shrugged their shoulders when art works belonging to their Jewish acquaintances or colleagues were offered to them for sale and they did not blink at the opportunity to do so. On the other hand, the cynical ones will tell you that it’s always been like this and you need to suck it up and make your peace with it. Otherwise you won’t last and you might as well pick another occupation. And don’t count on the government to sort out the ethics of this amoral mess. 

The past two decades since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets of December 1998 have been littered with vain attempts to create change in the way that the art world conducts its business. Although the changes are hard to discern, one thing is sure: the word “provenance” is unavoidable and unmistakable and so is its evil twin, “due diligence.” That’s progress!
Source: Perls Galleries Records, Archives of American Art, Box 8, Folder “Comité professionnel des galeries d’art”

05 April 2020

Art exports from Europe to the Western Hemisphere

by Marc Masurovsky
Applications for export pases for works of art, page 1

An innocuous list of works and objects of art has been widely available for study since historical records about art looting and restitution during the Nazi era become accessible either by on-site visits to leading archives or after their digitization on the platform known as fold3.com.

The list is entitled: “Applications for export passes for works of art.” All of the works which their owners have desired to export the Western Hemisphere were acquired in or came from areas known as “enemy territory.” This moniker targeted the following countries: Austria/Vienna, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Holland/Netherlands, France/Paris, “unoccupied France”, Romania.

The applicants submitted their export petitions from the following places: France, Lisbon, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland. They filed their export applications between 23/1/40 and 5/5/44, the vast majority having been submitted in 1941 and 1942, and only one in 1944.

The dates at which the objects were “taken from enemy territory” ostensibly to the places from which the export applications were then filed ranged from as early as 1934 and as late as 1941.

The objects themselves are a mix of works by Old Masters and 19th century French artists.

If we do our due diligence in a professional and non-judgmental way, all of these works need to be given extra scrutiny to eliminate any suspicion that they might have been misappropriated under Nazi rule aimed at Jews and their property. Many of the applicants’ names are well-known Jewish collectors who escaped from Europe or remained in neutral territories until the Nazi/Fascist dust had settled (Paul Graupe, Sommergut, Brunschnig, Francisca Heinemann, among others). Still, it’s worth asking about the provenance of works of art removed from Nazi Germany between 1934 and 1940, from Austria as of 1938, from France as of fall of 1940, out of Romania in 1941. With regards to the Netherlands, the objects were removed in 1938. That does not necessarily mean that their ownership history is completely clean since they could have been subject to illicit displacements in Germany and transferred to the Netherlands for sale to unwitting purchasers. We simply do not know. And that’s where research comes in handy.

A number of the works have interwar provenance information that removes the cloud (a Bauchant painting acquired from Jeanne Bucher in spring of 1940, a Bonnard acquired from the artist in 1940). But, as in the case of Paul Graupe while he was still in charge of an auction house in Berlin in 1935, one should be cautious because he did sell confiscated Jewish property. Therefore, a “Madonna with Child” attributed to Cima de Conegliano which Walter Wolf acquired from him in 1935 should be screened further. What about a Matisse painting acquired by André Weill “from Vollard” in May 1940? Vollard had died unexpectedly on the eve of World War II, and Martin Fabiani and Etienne Bignou, two notorious figures of the soon-to-be illegal art trade in German-occupied France, had imposed themselves as co-executors of the massive estate left by Ambroise Vollard? Should this object be reassessed based on the turbulent history surrounding the estate?

Even if all of these works ultimately pass the “plunder smell test”, we should keep in mind that the Roberts Commission and its tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, art historians and curators from distinguished American museums, did not have much information to go by when assessing the origins of these works before or after they entered the United States, except for the fact that they were the property of mostly well-established Jewish collectors in Europe who were fleeing for their lives from the neutral countries which they were able to reach.

When faced with such lists, don’t just dismiss them and assume that everything is fine. Do not give them the benefit of the doubt. The snapshot of the objects' trajectory that this 22-page list encapsulates becomes part of the object’s provenance or history in time and space and should be recorded as such.

Applications for export passes for works of art, page 2
Duly noted.