28 November 2019

Sri Lanka skulls

by Marc Masurovsky

A recent spat is opposing some historians and museum scholars to a decision by Edinburgh University to return nine skulls to Sri Lanka which were in its collection for more than a century, although the exact circumstances of their “acquisition” remain murky.

Chief Uruwarige
Chief Uruwarige of Sri Lanka’s Vedda community accepted the skulls from officials of the Scottish university. Presumably, the Vedda had taken arms against the British colonial presence in the early 1800s.

The pushback in the United Kingdom to this return was rather loud. Some historians have argued that the repatriation of objects obtained by force and other means of duress from colonized peoples around the world weakens the narrative of the museums that hold these objects because it makes it more difficult to tell the story of Great Britain as a “former imperial and colonial power.”

Others are more vociferous in their opposition to these returns which propel museums in the middle of what is perceived as a “contemporary cultural war” and warning that “museums should not be used for political battles.”

Let’s stop here.

An initial observation is that the debate over the repatriation of objects seized by force and other means from colonial subjects of Britain has questioned more openly the role of museums and their function as extensions of State power and Ideology. These debates are not new; after all, even the public accepts the general trope that museums were founded with objects removed during warfare and accompanying acts of pillaging, considered “normal.” The only people upset about this state of affairs were those on the losing end of the stick, asking for the return of their cultural property. This charade has been on-going for several centuries.

Two world wars, half a dozen well-documented genocidal undertakings and a long chain of military feuds (on average, several per annum) since 1945, have gradually altered the tenor of this conversation from “to the victors go the spoils” to “we maybe should reconsider holding these objects which we stole.”

Thousands of academic careers have been forged on the presence of objects in Western cultural institutions removed by force from across the globe. Untold numbers of exhibits have highlighted these objects. Auction houses and collectors the world over continue to trade in these objects.

Every generation ushers in a different set of values, different notions of right and wrong, of just and unjust, for better or for worse.

Conditions on our planet have worsened at every level—the very notion of freedom is under attack every day as are basic civil, cultural, economic and human rights. Invariably, museums that hold objects obtained by force and subterfuge decades ago and admired as brilliant works and objects of art are finding that possession of such objects is coming under fire and are now paying the price for wanton acquisitions of objects that, truthfully, should not be in their hands.

One obvious irritant which fuels and hardens those who advocate for repatriation is the refusal of museum directors, curators and lawmakers to tell the story of these objects accurately, wrinkles and warts included. In other words, pretty objects may embody stories, histories which are not pretty. Sugar-coating does not work. That’s called rewriting history, a form of revisionism and denial of history. Like any drug, the effects of the sugar-coating are short-lived and reality sets in anew, naked and, oftentimes, ugly. In this case, the provenance of colonial objects and human remains is anchored in events that, today, would be qualified as crimes against humanity and attacks against the cultural rights of those who were assaulted by imperial forces many moons ago.

In short, instead of grandstanding, those who complain about museums being politicized by “cultural wars” should remind themselves that museums exist as instruments and extensions of economic and political power. As someone famous once said, he who controls the narrative holds the power. Or something to that effect.

Let the dialogue begin. There is still time to find a solution embraced by all.

27 November 2019

Pots and pans

by Marc Masurovsky

Since the first Holocaust memorial was built in Europe, soon followed by dozens of others, the story line that these venerable institutions have conveyed to a global public has been exemplified by the Holocaust is not about property but about people.

Put another way, the vast majority of the six million Jewish men, women and children who lost their lives in the Holocaust were so downtrodden that all they owned were pots and pans and the clothes that they wore. Or so the conventional story goes. Those lucky enough to collect art were people of means who hailed for the most part from Central and Western Europe. The facts speak for themselves: 75 per cent of Jews lived in Eastern Europe; 90 per cent of them were murdered. In other words, the Holocaust is for the most part an Eastern European Ashkenazi story.

This stale stereotyping of Jews as living in substandard poverty across Europe has gone hand in hand with a stubborn refusal by Jewish communities worldwide to address the more complex question of property loss as one of the keystones of 20th century anti-Jewish behavior. If we follow this line of reasoning, there were only two classes of Jews-on top, the wealthy who had enough disposable income to collect fineries of all sorts including lavish furniture and expensive art, and the “shtetl” Jews, the peddlers, the pieceworkers who lived “on the other side of the tracks”, the inhabitants of the Jewish Pale in Eastern Europe. Forgotten or ignored are the lower middle class, artisans, skilled workers, cultural and intellectual workers, the midde class whom we find in every community, town, city, region of Europe. What of them? Do they fit in this story? They do but their property does not count. It’s not part of the Holocaust story. Or so we are told.

Fast forward to November 15, 2019, to the 20th anniversary celebration of the Paris-based CIVS—Commission for indemnification of Victims of Spoliation during WWII. Participants to that conference heard from some speakers that most Jews living in France were of “humble backgrounds” and did not collect any art. They were more about “pots and pans.” That did not stop the Vichy authorities and their Nazi friends In the Paris region alone, from confiscating and transferring to non-Jewish owners (a process known as “Aryanization”) the intangible and tangible property of 31000 owners. Moreover, close to 70000 residences where Jews lived were literally emptied during the so-called “M-Aktion” between March 1942 and the summer of 1944 in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. I doubt that those responsible for this wholesale campaign of ransacking Jewish dwellings would have committed so many resources and logistics if it were just about “pots and pans.” 

You do not have to be an “art collector” or “art dealer” to amass works and objects of art. There are multiple tiers of value in the art world and the art market whereby individuals can amass an impressive amount of esthetic objects of small value---paintings, works on paper, even sculpture, decorative objects, books, musical instruments, Judaica, produced by talented artists and craftsmen whose names are not Bellini, Tintoretto, Fragonard and Rembrandt.

In short, it is too convenient and shameful to oversimplify in order to deflect attention from the real problem:
-Culture is an integral part of the discussion on National Socialism, anti-Jewish policies and the Holocaust;
-Jewish culture was thriving in the interwar years;
-The Nazis and their local Fascist allies nearly extinguished it;
-Human beings—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—are attracted to objects that please them and, if they can, they acquire them so that they can live with them, appreciate them and share them with family, friends, acquaintances and complete strangers.

Thousands of artists, writers, poets, musicians, craftsmen from close to twenty nations lost their livelihood and their lives between 1933 and 1945, their property was seized, never to be seen again. The cumulative impact of those losses triggered a lessening, an impoverishment of the cultural heritage of Europe from which we have not fully recovered.

These losses were part of a well-orchestrated State-sponsored attempt (2/3 successful) by the Third Reich and its allies to erase all traces of Jewish life and activity across Europe—a continental form of “Aryanization” which witnessed a multi-billion dollar transfer of property from Jewish ownership into the hands of non-Jews and their businesses which powered the wartime and postwar economies of European countries.
So, no, it was not about “pots and pans.” It was about much more. To deny this fact is to deny and rewrite history.
The time is long overdue for these longstanding revisionist trends in the teaching of the Holocaust to come to an end.

22 November 2019

Diplomatic highs and lows in Paris

by Marc Masurovsky

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, special envoy on Holocaust affairs for the US Department of State, was one of the most prominent speakers at the 20th anniversary colloquium of the CIVS in Paris on November 15, 2019.

The main point person since the Clinton era on matters pertaining to Holocaust-era claims, Mr. Eizenstat delivered an unusual speech regarding looted art, restitution, France’s treatment of looted art in State collections, and his own legacy.

From year to year, the Eizenstat narrative on looted art and restitution has morphed and been rewritten, not for stylistic reasons but perhaps because Mr. Eizenstat has had a decades-long love/hate relationship with the whole idea of restituting art objects to plundered victims of the Nazis. And he simply does not know how to address it. After all, you cannot package art the way you bundle insurance policies, gold bars and coins, bank accounts and so forth, something that he excels at, which has yielded billions of dollars worth of settlements for Jewish victims and their families. For that reason alone, Mr. Eizenstat's legacy as a reliable and devoted advocate and champion of Holocaust victims' rights is uncontested and admirable.

Here are some of his many statements which were oftentimes punctuated by occasional spurts of ire:

-“France is going from being a laggard to being a leader” on questions of art restitution. That elicited some giggles including from Mr. Eizenstat who appeared pleased by his joke which was not really a joke.

-The CIVS conference symbolized “our last opportunity”. Let’s recall that the Prague Conference on Holocaust-era Assets in June 2009 was also “our last opportunity.”

He reminded us of his infinite capacity to repeat “fake news” about cultural losses during WWII. Unverified, the numbers put forth by Eizenstat are the same ones he has repeated since 1998.
According to him, 600000 paintings were looted during WWII, of which 100000 are still missing. In 1997, Philip Saunders of Trace database had made this unfounded assertion.  (Mr. Eizenstat went on record with those numbers in 2006). The Polish government alone claims that half a million cultural objects were removed from its territory during WWII. Which irresponsible historian or advocacy group came up with these fictitious numbers? Not even the Monuments Men could be bothered to audit the cultural losses of each nation victim of Nazi aggression. The more accurate estimates situate cultural losses in the millions.

Speaking of the Monuments Men, Mr. Eizenstat delivered a paean in their honor, citing their bravery and courage (smoking pipes and sporting tweeds) in Munich and Wiesbaden, while recovering 5 million works of art! No kidding! He forgot to mention that this figure mostly accounts for books, decorative objects and State-owned art. Not much room left for Jews, is there? Moreover, 5 million might be just a tad exaggerated. But who’s counting? You get the idea. Lots of looted stuff was repatriated to countries of origin.

Mr. Eizenstat was on a roll. He posited that it was impossible to identify owners at the end of the war. If so, how did so many objects get returned? The heirless asset problem must be staggering.

Let us now enter fantasy land. In December 1997, Mr. Eizenstat came up with the brilliant idea for a conference on looted art or so he says. That’s really strange because he was firmly opposed to the inclusion of looted art in any international convening dealing with assets during the Holocaust. It was the seizure of the two Schiele paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in January 1998 that provoked the inclusion of looted art in what became the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets.

Speaking of the 1998 conference, Mr. Eizenstat, since November 2018, has changed his tone regarding the 11 Washington Principles that he penned which were supposed to frame an international strategy to identify looted art in public collections (not private) and suggest ways for victims to settle their grievances with current possessors.

Well, as it turns out, these non-binding Principles were mostly based on a set of guidelines developed by American museums earlier in 1998 when faced with mounting criticism over their indifference to the presence of stolen objects in their collections. A funny way of helping claimants by seeking inspiration from the very institutions that are firmly opposed to any form of restitution.

Mr. Eizenstat went on to honor the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) for setting up a task force to address the question of looted art in their collections. To that end, the AAMD issued a set of guidelines in June 1998 which served as the benchmark for the Washington Principles, of which Mr. Eizenstat is the uncontested author.

Mr. Eizenstat proffered adoring words for Philippe de Montebello. The flamboyant former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a fierce opponent of restitution but a very savvy museum official who understood the value of pre-emptive strikes on issues of looted art and artifacts. To wit, he promoted the drawing up of guidelines for American museums to follow when confronted with objects in their collections that might be of dubious provenance and negotiated creative settlements with the Italian government over the presence of looted antiquities in the Met’s collections.

Mr. Eizenstat was particularly combative in upholding his legacy and defending his record against critics who have blasted him for “doing nothing” and uttering mere “words.”

Seizing the opportunity in a fiery tone, he shared a long list of recommendations and critiques in Uzi-like fashion. It was hard to keep up. Some of the more notable ones follow:

1/ he denounced the impossibility of de-accessioning restitutable objects from French museums as “a French problem.”

2/ He went on to skewer Dutch museums for having reneged on their commitment to the Washington Principles by equating the cohesiveness of their collections with the interests of Holocaust claimants—the notorious “balance of interest” doctrine approved by Dutch museums in 2016? Verify.

3/ he denounced the German Limbach commission and its 15 cases in 15 years.

4/ Once again, he congratulated the Metropolitan Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for showing the way on how to handle looted objects in their collections.

5/ Quoting the AAMD and the AAM, he observed that the NEPIP portal was worthless and “outmoded”, in other words, unusable.

6/ He criticized US museums for being so aggressive towards claimants by resorting to technical legal defenses in order to dismiss their claims.

7/ He applauded the HEAR Act as the antidote to summary judgments petitioned by museum lawyers against claimants, whether meritorious or not.

8/ He thinks highly of the JUST Act which requires countries to publish annual reports on the state of restitution in their midst.

9/ he took partial credit for launching “provenance research as a new profession.” As if it was not performed prior to 1998.

10/ He congratulated France for acting as a coordinator between the five standing restitution committees.

Then, Mr. Eizenstat pulled out his foggy crystal ball and peered inside it, noting:

1/ Forced sales and flight sales (fluchtgut) are to be included as part of the Washington Principles (the former are mentioned explicitly in the Terezin Declaration and the latter are suggested implicitly therein);

2/ provenance research is expensive and requires resources.

3/ Public museums should publish on the Internet a detailed provenance for all of their objects.

4/ research should be conducted in all museums—private and public.

5/ De-accession laws need to be changed in order to accommodate restitution of looted objects.

6/ The Washington Principles apply to private collections

7/ Every country should designate a point of reference for claimants

8/ there should be no time limits on claims.

9/ he denounced the European Union as being “behind the curve.”

10/ with regards to so-called heirless assets, Eizenstat reiterated the need for “just and fair solutions” which amount to selling off these unclaimed assets after giving research one more try. Meanwhile, the institutions holding such objects should educate their public about how they ended up in their collections. As an aside, Eizenstat lauded the Austrian solution to the heirless assets question, embodied in the National Fund run by Hannah Lessing. In short, if Austrian federal museums identify objects in their midst for which there are no identifiable owners, they are transferred to the National Fund which follows up with its own research and posts the objects on its website. After a period of time has elapsed, the Fund sets aside those objects for sale, the proceeds of which are disbursed amongst needy families of survivors. Ms. Lessing begged to differ during the question and answer period.

That was enough for one day.

21 November 2019

CIVS mea culpas

by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note: This is the second part of a three-part delivery on the November 15, 2019, Paris colloquium to celebrate 20 years of activity of the CIVS.]

In short order, CIVS speakers delivered some hard facts throughout the day:

-72000 apartments were ransacked in Paris and its environs during the German occupation of France;

-30000 claims files were submitted after the war. Of these, 20000 were for material losses and 10000 for financial losses;

- 518 million Euros have been disbursed for material losses;

-58 million euros have been disbursed to cover financial losses. In the eyes of the CIVS, this sum represents only half of such losses;

-The average sums disbursed to claimants seeking compensation for material losses amounted to 50000 euros;

-There has been a 99 per cent approval rate for all claims submitted to the CIVS for some form of compensation;

-The current pace of claims being submitted to the CIVS is 11 per month.

Former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin declared that. for years, French officials had acknowledged that reparations had been inadequate after 1945. Hence, there was a crying need to “do more” but no one did so until the mid-1990s. On July 16, 1995, President Jacques Chirac delivered a landmark speech, breaking with four decades of official French denials regarding Vichy’s responsibility in the persecution, plunder and deportation of Jews in France from 1940 to 1944. His elocution, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the July 1942 mass arrests (rafle) of thousands of Jews forcibly removed from their residences, businesses, arrested in plain sight on Paris city streets and locked up at the Vel d’Hiv. The speech prefigured the need for the CIVS. The “Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah” (FMS) was established three years later with funds from liquidated unclaimed Jewish-owned property and bank accounts.

On September 10, 1999, the CIVS opened its doors to handle claims submitted by survivors of anti-Jewish persecutions in France during the Vichy years. Its main mission was—and still is--to recommend that the Prime Minister approve compensation for claimants seeking relief for material and/or financial losses due to acts of persecution during WWII. Jospin reminisced over the various American “class action” lawsuits that had pitted claimants against the French government in 2000 and 2001. He recalled that the exchanges between French officials and American lawyers and lawmakers had oftentimes been “bitter”.

At the end of his presentation, Jospin, like so many others after him, reiterated the fact that “more needs to be done with regards to the restitution of cultural objects.” “Repair what must be repaired.”

In continuing the mea culpas of CIVS leaders, François Bernard, vice chairman of the CIVS, admitted that he and the rest of the CIVS had a difficult time grasping the true extent to which “people’s lives had been wrecked” during the years of occupation of France and thereafter. In essence, for him and others at the CIVS, the damage to individual victims was impossible to quantify in any satisfactory way. Citing the Matteoli report, Bernard solemnly declared that the mission of the CIVS, from its outset, was steeped in justice and humanity. Bernard turned the discussion inwardly by suggesting that the 20 years of the CIVS had been riddled with ambiguities. In a rather flippant comment, he stated: “we have no idea who we are.” The comment was more juridical than philosophical. He then went on to suggest that the CIVS had behaved like its own jurisdiction or a meta-jurisdiction.

Some of the disconnects and dysfunctions inherent in the CIVS mission stemmed from the decree that established it. The decree was interpreted too narrowly, which led to the following:

-War-related losses were excluded, although losses resulting from wartime plunder were not necessarily ignored.

-Anti-Semitic acts perpetrated by the German occupier outside the scope of Vichy policies may not have been taken into account.

-Lost earnings due to antisemitic decrees forcing people out of their professions were not addressed either. In other words, you were on your own if you thought you could be compensated for lost income resulting from anti-Jewish persecutions.

In spite of this, the CIVS leadership congratulated itself for having had one-on-one meetings with half to two-thirds of the claimants. The CIVS took note of all of the criticisms and insults proffered against it. Only 40 claims were litigated out of the tens of thousands that were submitted and adjudicated.

If not much has been done about cultural losses, the CIVS maintains that it will be difficult for it to change the way it does business. Matteoli once said that cultural losses constituted a “black hole.” They were also referred to as a “lost museum”. If it is lost, will it reappear? And if so, what to do? Meh.

to be continued...