24 December 2011

Overview of the first year of activity on the “plundered art” blog

In order to know who you, the readers of “plundered art”, are, Google provides a potent tool—Google Analytics—which provides a glimpse of the readership of a blog or a website. In the case of “plundered art”, the following can be said:

You, the readers of “plundered art”, are mostly women, followed closely by men. More than one third of you are at least 35 years old.

Your favorite posts were, in descending order of popularity:
  1. Van Gogh's 1889 depiction of his mutilated self smoking a pipe—PR 144
  2. The five Schiele drawings of Karl Maylander
  3. Jacopo Zucchi, "The Bath of Bathseba": or how pieces of a story build a new story about the same story ex post facto
  4. Nazi looted art conference at Lafayette College, Easton, PA: a debriefing (II)
  5. Nazi looted art conference at Lafayette College, October 26-28, 2011: a debriefing (I)
  6. In search of a triptych "Purificato Mariae" by Marco d'Oggione
  7. MNR (Musées Nationaux Récupération) Notes—R 6 P « Femme au turban, » by Marie Laurencin
  8. The Hemer case or how a claimant does not want to be a claimant
  9. The Wildenstein reality check
  10. French loot in Poland
You live in more than 1000 cities and towns located in 90 countries across 5 continents.

Many of you speak at least one of the following languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, Czech, Hungarian.

You work in global auction houses, multinational companies, national and supranational government agencies like the European Commission, the “Ministère des Affaires étrangères et européennes” in Paris, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, the United Nations, UNESCO, the US Department of Justice and the US Department of State.

On the academic front, you hail from universities, academies, and institutes in the Americas, the West Indies, Europe, and Asia.

You also work for international news agencies, libraries and archives, as well as world-renown art museums and galleries.


First anniversary of "plundered art"

Happy holidays!

The “plundered art” blog just passed its first anniversary.

This might be a good time to revisit its reason for existence.

It’s not that simple to decide one day: “Oh! Let’s write about the restitution of art objects looted by those Nazis and Fascists during the 1930s and 1940s and how so much of it was never returned to the rightful owners and why the current owners of those objects look for every way under the sun not to return those objects and why governments pretend that there is no problem.”

This blog is certainly not about settling scores, old and new.

It’s actually a complicated beast.

At first, I was very shy about putting anything in writing about an issue that has already absorbed several decades of my life. Truth be told, the initial motivation for this blog was to share the story of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), how it came into existence and what it was able to accomplish.

The telling of HARP’s story has not been a simple affair and is still incomplete.

It runs afoul of important and enduring taboos:
  • the unwillingness of postwar Jewish organizations in the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, to press for a complete accounting of the cultural losses suffered by Jewish owners during the 1930s and 1940s;
  • the unwillingness of State-controlled cultural institutions across the globe to produce a complete inventory of cultural assets that entered their collections since the 1930s which might have been acquired illegally;
  • the unwillingness of governments to come clean about the extent, scope, and breadth of cultural plunder in their respective nations and their efforts to produce complete inventories of those looted cultural assets in State-owned collections;
  • the unwillingness of governments to come clean about the total number of looted cultural assets present in State-owned collections;
  • the unwillingness of national and international groups to address the question of cultural rights, the sovereign right of individuals to culture and to the ownership of cultural assets over those of States, the question of cultural patrimony, cultural property, and cultural heritage, and how those abstract notions interfere with and are used against the right of individuals to recover and own looted cultural assets which are rightfully theirs. Those non-governmental organizations include but are not limited to: the United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and many other organizations and agencies, supranational and national which are specifically concerned with cultural rights, and the protection of cultural assets;
  • the unwillingness of law enforcement, police and security agencies—civilian and military—to repress and suppress the illicit international trade in looted cultural assets, including and especially the millions of objects that changed hands illegally against the backdrop of genocide, mass conflict and slaughter in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond;
  • the unwillingness of cultural institutions, universities, colleges, institutes, foundations, and other cultural establishments to teach and educate young and old about the phenomenon of cultural plunder, the cultural rights of individuals, and ask the fundamental question as to who owns culture when discussing the illicit removal of art objects from the hands of their rightful owners and the attempts of the latter—mostly vain—to recover them as their own.
As of now, the following items remain unanswered, more than sixty-five years after plunder was denounced at the International Military Tribunal at Nurnberg as a crime against humanity and a war crime:
  • the true extent, scope, and breadth of thefts of cultural assets during the 1930s and 1940s for racial, political, and other reasons;
  • the actual number of lost cultural assets, by type, by owner, by country;
  • the actual number of cultural assets recovered;
  • the actual number of cultural assets restituted to their rightful owners;
  • the actual number of cultural assets that were recovered but never restituted;
  • the actual number of cultural assets that were looted and never restituted—by type, by owner, by country.
  • the identity of the thieves;
  • the identity of those who agreed to trade in these looted cultural assets;
  • the identity of those who currently own these looted cultural assets.
To make a long story short, for now, the telling of HARP’s story ran afoul of these unanswered questions and the overwhelming taboo that endures today as strongly as it did two decades ago of venerable institutions that seek to educate the world about the Holocaust and genocide and yet refuse out of principle—yes, OUT OF PRINCIPLE!—to avoid at all costs any discussion, any debate, any addressing in any way, shape or form, of the question of cultural plunder, despite the fact that millions of members of the Jewish community suffered unspeakable losses, physical, material, and spiritual—among them, the loss of objects that tied them to culture—their own and that of others.

Let’s be clear about one thing: it is far easier to ignore the problem than to address it. And for those who seek to address it absent any filters, any caveats, any disclaimers, any compromises, the road is long, steep, and lonely. But every time progress is made, however small, even the mere existence of this blog, justifies the desire to induce even the slightest change in society’s approach to the question of cultural rights, cultural ownership, and cultural restitution.

The second year of the “plundered art” blog opens on a renewed commitment to speak, document, critique, applaud, proclaim, advocate and document, document, and document more. Because transparency is the only way by which we can grasp the full breadth and scope of the problem, a problem made so complicated by those who oppose restitution. Those who refuse to address it are simply acting as accomplices, aiding and abetting in the crime of rewriting history by denying its existence.

I wish to thank you, our readers, listeners, observers, and critics alike, for checking into “plundered art.” I invite you to continue.

Year two promises to explore cultural plunder in other realms, like the Far East, the universality of cultural rights and its nemesis, cultural plunder; and the search for enduring, long-term solutions to remedy the ills of cultural thefts anchored in mass conflict, genocide, ethnocide, and other forms of wholesale persecutions perpetrated by a State or a group against individuals because of who they are and what they are.

Works and objects will be discussed with dubious ownership histories which are displayed, bought, and sold, across the globe.

And, of course, there is no shortage of historical information on plundered objects that have either been restituted or remain out of reach of their rightful owners.

Until next time…

21 November 2011

"Christ carrying the cross," by Girolamo di Romano

Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue, Girolamo Romano
Source: New York Times, Arts Beat
Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science (Tallahassee, FL)
Source: Wikipedia
Shortly after noon, on November 4, 2011, a group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents entered the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Florida. Armed with a seizure warrant signed by US Attorney, Pamela Marsh, the agents removed a painting by Girolamo di Romano (also known as “Romanino”) entitled “Christ carrying the cross”, on suspicions that the painting was stolen property belonging to the heirs of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, an Italian Jewish patriarch who had lived in France and had died there in 1940 shortly before the German invasion of May 1940.

The painting was part of a major loan exhibit from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy, that had graced the walls of the Tallahassee museum since March 2011 until the show closed on September 4. All the works returned to Milan except for the Romanino.

Anonymous ICE Official at Seizure
Source: ICE
The Pinacoteca had acquired the Romanino painting on the private art market in 1988, obviously without due consideration for the provenance of the work itself.

In 2001, the Gentili di Giuseppe heirs petitioned the Italian government and the Pinacoteca to return the painting to their family, in vain. Aware that the painting was being exhibited in the United States, Gentili di Giuseppe’s grandson, Lionel Salem, contacted Chucha Barber, director of the Mary Brogan Museum, to discuss the painting and to notify her of his belief that this was the same painting that had been illegally sold by the Vichy government in 1941 and was thus subject to restitution.

Several comments are needed here:

Pinacoteca di Brera (Milan, Italy)
Source: Wikipedia
Firstly, no one in the press has pointed out that the Pinacoteca and the Italian government had been aware for over a decade of the questionable origin of the Romanino painting. Hence, when the Pinacoteca agreed to send the painting to Tallahassee, the Italian government authorized its export, despite the fact that a potentially stolen cultural asset was leaving the borders of Italy, entering United States territory and thus transferring the risk to the host, the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science.

Secondly, neither the Pinacoteca nor the Italian government deemed it necessary to alert Ms. Barber that there might be some complications arising from the presence of the Romanino painting on its walls. A sign of arrogance? Who knows?

Let’s turn to the case itself:

In 1941, the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini became concerned that the property of its nationals of Jewish ancestry was falling into the hands of the Vichy government so that the French government could liquidate it and pocket the proceeds of the sales. Mussolini’s diplomats in Vichy repeatedly petitioned the Pétain government to lay off the assets of its nationals and to allow Italy to initiate proceedings for repatriating Italian Jewish property back to the homeland. In other words, the Fascist message to Pétain was clear: don’t mess with our Jews.

The Gentili di Giuseppe family was among those listed whose confiscated assets should be repatriated to Italy. That did not happen.

Hence, the proof of confiscation is explicit since, one way or another, the Gentili di Giuseppe family’s belongings were targeted both by Vichy and by Fascist Italy.

Fast forward to the present:

In July 2010, I had the extraordinary pleasure of chatting informally with Italy’s State Attorney Maurizio Fiorilli, after a conference held in Amelia, Italy, regarding illicit cultural property. To be honest, I spotted him at a local restaurant where I was finishing up lunch. Fiorilli was seated nearby. I took a deep breath, introduced myself and requested the pleasure of asking several questions, which he agreed to do. At first, he spoke in Italian and a woman at his table translated his words into English. Soon, he switched to English once we discussed the Gentili case.

Paraphrasing his words, Fiorilli indicated that even if the Gentili di Giuseppe family was able to get its painting back—the Romanino!-- it had to remain in Italy, as cultural property.

Cultural property? Does that mean that a XVIth century Italian painting is treated like an antique vase dug up from Roman ruins? How does that happen? Cultural property applies to cultural objects and artifacts extracted from the earth, not to Holocaust-era cultural assets that were forcibly removed from the homes and businesses of Nazi and Fascist victims. In other words, Fiorilli was playing a dangerous game, using cultural property laws to prevent Holocaust victims from recovering their assets.

Could it be that Fiorilli considers the Romanino painting as part of Italy’s patrimony—patrimonio culturale, patrimoine culturel, cultural heritage? If that is the case, the Italian government is pre-empting the rights of individuals to recover what is rightfully theirs, by invoking abstract concepts of cultural heritage and the greater good of the nation.

Both arguments—cultural property and cultural heritage—are self-serving, opportunistic gambits to ignore individual rights to ownership of cultural assets. Hence, the Tallahassee case extends far beyond the restitution of an Italian Old Master painting to the rightful heirs of Gentili di Giuseppe. It brings into question the dubious practices of governments in preventing restitution of stolen cultural assets by invoking abstract and ill-defined concepts of cultural heritage and misusing notions that apply to antiquities by conflating them with Holocaust-era losses.

As far as we know, the Gentili di Giuseppe family has had a rough time dealing with American museums. The compromises that it was forced to accept with cultural institutions such as the Princeton Art Museum were not aimed at returning their property to them, but at negotiating financial settlements to allow those museums to maintain so-called good title to the Gentili property. ICE’s action might be the first step in a long process that might actually give the Gentili di Giuseppe heirs a taste of justice on American soil and maybe teach the Italian government a lesson or two about the Holocaust and restitution.

Princeton University Museum of Art
Source: Wikipedia

Maurizio Fiorilli's comments at the 2010 ARCA Conference in the Palazzo Petrignani in Amelia, Italy:

Maurizio Fiorilli, ARCA 2010, Part I 
Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), 2010

Maurizio Fiorilli, ARCA 2010, Part II

Maurizio Fiorilli, ARCA 2010, Part III
Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), 2010

Maurizio Fiorilli, ARCA 2010, Part IV
Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), 2010

20 November 2011

Pearls from Brazil

São Paulo, Brazil, boasts one of the finest art museums in the Southern Hemisphere, something to make its friends in Buenos Aires squirm.

MASP - Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo
Source: Flickr via Fernando Stankuns
Seal of Sao Paulo
Source: Wikipedia
Founded in 1947, or two years after the end of the Second World War, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), acquired works by Old and New Masters alike until it can now brag that it holds more than 8000 objects in its collection.

Currently on display at MASP are portraits and self-portraits by the likes of Goya, Manet, van Gogh, Modigliani, Renoir and others of equal esthetic caliber.

Any desire to know more about these works—their history, their previous owners, past exhibitions, publications in which they appeared—leads to … nothing. Anyone curious to find out additional information must undertake the research using available tools… like the Internet.

Let’s see what we get:

Le Gamin au Képi, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888
Source: ArtFinder
On May 1, 1995, Christie’s in New York sold a painting entitled “Jeune homme à la casquette,” produced in November-December 1888, by Vincent van Gogh, for $13,202,500 as “the property of a European gentleman.” The provenance is fairly well fleshed out. It tells us that K. Neumann, from Barmen, acquired the painting from Justin Tannhauser on July 17, 1923. The next owner is Dr. Fritz Nathan, of Zurich, Switzerland, a leading art expert, appraiser and collector in his own right. He bought it in 1947 from K. Neumann. The K. Neumann most likely refers to Karl Neumann who, at the time, had owned another painting by van Gogh entitled, Landscape near Arles, which is now at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, in Indianapolis, IN. Neumann had sold this painting to Tannhauser between 1918 and 1927. This Mr. Neumann lived in a town called Barmen, outside of Wuppertal in Western Germany. The neighboring city of Wuppertal absorbed Barmen in 1930.

The only question to ask here is: how did Karl Neumann hang on to a van Gogh painting for the entire period of the Third Reich? We do know that the Nazi regime investigated all transactions by Jewish dealers, especially as regards to objectionable works like those by Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Expressionists.

Portrait of Suzanne Block, Pablo Picasso, 1904
Source: Wikipedia
Although the provenance is impeccable, the history of the painting is worth a short documentary. “Suzanne Bloch” was one of the first works to be acquired by the MASP in 1947, with financial assistance from Walter Moreira Salles, the founder of Unibanco. Sixty years later, on December 20, 2007, thieves made off with the painting. The Sao Paulo police recovered the painting undamaged one month later.

Walther Moreira Salles
Source: Instituto Moreira Salles

17 November 2011

Landscapes of cultural plunder revisited

Vue de la zone entre la porte de Clignancourt el la porte Montmarte, 1943-1944
Source: BHdv / Roger-Viollet / Direction technique de la voirie parisienne via  Patrimoine numérique via Bibliothèque de l´Hotel de Ville de Paris
Today’s truism: history is geographic. Every event can be broken down into an infinite number of particles that become data points which can be translated into a longitude and a latitude.
So what?
So what???
Viewed through another lens, the study of history is as complex as you want it to be. Depending on the scale at which you approach it, it can be lofty and very top-down, “small-scale” as geographers would put it, or extremely “granular”, from the ground up, or “large-scale” if described by our friends in geography departments.

When working with loot, plunder, and its inevitable yield, each looted or plundered item is a potential data point. How can that be?

If you ask the following questions, you might actually begin to understand:
  1. Where was it when it was stolen?
  2. How was it moved?
  3. Where was it taken?
  4. Where did it go from there?
Each one of these questions produces a location. Space separates each location. The stolen object moves from one location to another and, by so doing, evolves through space and across time. All of a sudden, the stolen object adopts a spatio-temporal personality.
Now what?
We have an object, which moves through space and time. Each movement can be assigned a longitude and a latitude. Each coordinate can be anchored in a time frame. Hence, we can see the object evolve across a time line and a landscape.

Within each location, there is granularity. For instance, was the seized object inside an apartment or a house? If so, what room? What floor? Where was it? On the wall? On the floor? Inside a drawer? The level of detail can be excruciating, but for each level of detail, there is a corresponding scale, which allows the geographer to produce a visualization.

Once the object is removed from its original location, it must reach another site, more often than not a storage facility. How does it reach that destination? The itinerary alone invites all sorts of questions which we can or cannot answer.
Is that useful?
It all depends on what you are looking for.

For example, let’s take the database of objects that transited through the Jeu de Paume. Link: www.errproject.org/jeudepaume.

You’ll notice that, in addition to object-based information, there are locations and dates assigned to it. That was a deliberate attempt to anchor each object in space and time.

One statistic might interest you: a random study of 18th century French furniture confiscated from apartments across Paris indicated, not too surprisingly, that more than half of this highly-prized period furniture came from five ‘arrondissements’ of Western and Central Paris. None came from lower middle class and working class neighbors. Again, it might seem obvious to you, but mapping taste can yield a fresh look at the historical and art-historical data.

In the future, whenever that moment might come, we will ‘visualize’ the peregrinations of stolen cultural objects by type, by author, by medium, throughout the wartime period and even the postwar era. What use does that have for us?

This intellectual exercise produces an instant snapshot of esthetic preferences, the geographic distribution of objects according to taste, the uses and disuses of specific locations for processing and storing looted art, the temporal incongruities by object type and by artist. The visualization of cultural plunder will open new vistas of research and understanding that will inform and revise the current state of research in this emerging field as well as promote new lines of inquiry.

15 November 2011

Modigliani's "Seated Man with a Cane" up for grabs

by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note: This blog piece originally appeared on November 15, 2011. It has been updated to reflect additional news and research regarding the "Seated Man with a Cane," by Amedeo Modigliani, once in 2016, and on June 9, 2018]
Seated Man with a Cane, Amédéo Modigliani
Source: Courthouse News Service
The first day of November 2011 began with a headline-grabbing story about a painting by Amédéo Modigliani, "Seated Man with a Cane." According to the prevailing news accounts in the Anglo-American press, a Frenchman of Jewish descent by the name of Oscar Stettiner had lived in Paris before the advent of the Second World War. Instead of waiting for the Wehrmacht to march into Paris, Stettiner did what a third of the Parisian populace did—he fled. Before going south, Stettiner parted with his property, including works of art, never to see them again.

The plaintiff in this case is Philippe Maestracci who was born in the Dordogne in 1944 where his grandfather, Oscar Stettiner, had sought refuge and remained throughout the Second World War in a small town called La Force.

The news reports indicate that, at some point in 1941, a man by the name of Marcel Philippon became the official overseer of Stettiner’s assets as a logical consequence of being of Jewish descent and being specifically targeted for that reason by German and French anti-Jewish ordinances and decrees.

On July 3, 1944, the Modigliani painting was offered up for sale at an auction in Paris.

In 1946, Oscar Stettiner initiated proceedings to recover his painting. He died in 1948.

More than sixty years later, the Modigliani painting was offered up for sale at Sotheby’s by its current owner, Helly Nahmad, which triggered the current claim by Oscar Stettiner's sole surviving heir, Philippe Maestracci.

The following text should be viewed as a historical consultation provided free of charge to the parties warring over the painting. If they get no benefit out of this, the fault is entirely theirs.

Before even entering into a critical analysis of the facts as they have been presented to the public, the news reports contradict one another, thereby making it very difficult to develop an accurate version of a now-familiar story of spoliation of Jewish cultural assets, recycling on the wartime art market, and postwar attempts at recovering the stolen cultural property.

Most news reports, which repeat Courthouse News Service and the British Mail, indicate that “the Nazis appointed Marcel Philippon a temporary administrator to sell Stettiner’s property…” ArtInfo, on the other hand, gets it all wrong by indicating that the Nazis placed the Modigliani painting “in the care of” Marcel Philippon in 1939, which is a bit nonsensical since the Germans entered Paris in mid-June 1940.

The complaint itself does not shed additional light on what went wrong during the war. However, it does make several historical errors which are not helpful. It alleges that “the Nazis adopted a practice and a policy of despoiling Jewish families of property located in the Occupied Zone by forced sales.” It would have been more intelligent to indicate that the Nazi authorities, referred to as the German Military Administration (Militärbefehlshaber für Frankreich) shared the burden of enacting and enforcing anti-Jewish decrees with the collaborationist regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain, whose government was based in Vichy. It was Vichy that enacted the most sweeping anti-Jewish laws, not the Germans. Those laws established a sequence of economic restrictions aimed at ostracizing and impoverishing the Jews living in France at the time of the German invasion. The turnkey moment was the establishment of the “Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives” (The General Commissariat for Jewish Affairs or “CGQJ”) in April 1941 whose main purpose was the wholesale transfer of property from Jewish ownership to Aryan hands in consultation with and sometimes in opposition to German dicta.

Le Commissariat général aux question juive, place des Petits-Peres, l´ancenne banque Léopold Louis-Dreyfus
Source: Wikipedia via Bundesarchiv
Where does Marcel Philippon fit into this strategy? According to the complaint, “the Nazis would appointe [sic] a Temporary Administrator (“Commissaire Gérant”) to marshal and sell Jewish property and to turn the proceeds over to the Third Reich.” This is really where matters get very sticky.

Before the establishment of the CGQJ, the German authorities began to appoint overseers to manage companies and businesses owned by Jews. The individuals appointed in this capacity were known as commissaires gérants. The title should be interpreted literally: their function was to manage businesses whose owners had fled, hence the word “Gérant” or “manager.” The ultimate fate of these businesses became entangled in arduous negotiations between the German occupation authorities and the newly-minted CGQJ since the Vichy authorities had laid claim to any assets owned by Jews on French soil, especially if they were French nationals.

The Administrateur Provisoire is an invention of the Vichy government. Loosely translated as interim overseers, their function was to manage confiscated Jewish assets for the purpose of either liquidating them or aryanizing them. In the case of Oscar Stettiner, the complaint raises a number of questions which need to be researched thoroughly:
  1. Stettiner -- assuming that we are talking about the same one--allegedly owned a gallery which had been founded by his family in the second half of the nineteenth century. If his gallery was still active in the fall of 1939, it would have been placed under the care of a “commissaire gérant”, assuming that the Germans had gotten to it first. Had they not, the Vichy government would have seized the opportunity and appointed its own overseer, hence the competitive nature of control of Jewish assets between the Germans and the French.
  2. Marcel Philippon, as an interim overseer, had to abide by the instructions of the CGQJ and/or the Germans, depending on who actually appointed him. If he was in charge of both Stettiner’s personal and corporate assets, a determination would have to be made about how best to handle the seized property. It could be a mix of transfer of ownership to Aryan hands and outright liquidation through auctions or sealed bid offers. If there is a paper trail, it would be in the records of the CGQJ, archivally known as AJ38, the acronym given to this notorious collection by the French National Archives.
  3. the sale of the Modigliani painting three years after its placement under the management of Philippon is of concern, because it is difficult to understand, although it is not inconceivable, how and why Philippon would have waited for so long to sell the Modigliani, knowing that the wartime Paris market was thriving and that Modiglianis were easy to sell at a fair price due to their desirability both in contemporaneous French and foreign art circles. For reasons of due diligence, both parties should consult the d’Atri records at the Archives of American Art which contain the notes of Mr. D’Atri who was busy assembling a catalogue raisonné of Modigliani’s works but failed to complete it. However, his notes and ledgers are enlightening since he presumably inventoried every oil painting produced by the master until his untimely death.
  4. the postwar claim gives me heartburn. Indeed, there is no indication that Mr. Stettiner filed an official restitution claim with the French government. The records of the Commission de récupération artistique (CRA) make no mention of Oscar Stettiner or of his gallery. The records of the Office des Biens et Intérêts Privés (OBIP) make no mention of either Oscar, Maud, or Jacques Stettiner. However, in this particular instance, the current inventories are incomplete. Both parties in this litigation owe it to themselves to contact the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at La Courneuve (Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et Européennes or MAEE) and request any compensation or restitution claims filed under the various names of the victims as presented in the complaint. If Oscar Stettiner decided to “go it alone” and seek personal justice outside the sphere of State-sponsored claims through judicial proceedings, the Paris courts and especially the Tribunal de la Seine and the Tribunal de Première Instance might be the proper jurisdictions where a docket might have survived.
  5. forced sales in Vichy France: The French government has never admitted to the existence of so-called “forced sales”, assigning that moniker to Nazi ill-doings. Liquidation sales of Jewish-owned property did occur on a weekly basis throughout occupied France, mostly in the Paris region, but the mechanisms used to recycle Jewish-owned property were far more complex than meets the eye, especially when cultural assets were involved. This matter needs to be seriously examined in light of the extensive historical documentation surrounding the wartime Paris art market and the recycling of confiscated Jewish property.
Parting thoughts:

The search for justice through claims for restitution of cultural assets forcibly removed from the hands of owners of Jewish descent requires that those who represent the aggrieved parties should pay close attention to history as it unfolded and reflect that history in their argumentation. Without such scrupulous and diligent attention to the historical truth, history is rewritten and the damage is done in the courts and in the minds of those who must hear these cases and make an informed decision about the validity of the claim brought before them.

That is not to say that the Stettiner issue is invalid. Far from that, but the historical investigative work must be brought to a forceful conclusion in order to allow all parties involved in this and similar conflicts to reach an outcome that is anchored in historical truth and ethical conduct.

Otherwise, much like “Groundhog Day”, we keep on repeating history over and over again.

Is it too much to ask that the parties involved in the dispute over the Modigliani painting come together and ascertain the facts as they occurred in the name of history, justice, and the truth? No more, no less. It would be reprehensible for Helly Nahmad to proceed with the sale of the painting because there is a taint on it and that taint must be washed off.

2016 update:

The Toronto-based Mondex Corp. now represents Mr. Maestracci, the closest kin to Oscar Stettiner in its attempt to recover the "Seated Man with a Cane", an oil painting by Modigliani.

The "Seated Man with a Cane" by Amedeo Modigliani has been located in the Geneva Freeport where Swiss authorities ordered its seizure.  The shell company under which it was registered is in fact owned by the Nahmad family which means that, by several steps removed, Nahmad is the current possessor. Or so the Swiss prosecutors believe together with US investigators.

The challenge now is to see whether Mr. Maestracci and Mondex can prevail and assert their claim over the Modigliani painting.  Its history remains murky.


The provenance of the "Seated Man with a Cane" raises questions, which beg for more meticulous and forensic research:

Repeated inspections and examinations of the records of Alfredo d'Atri, an art dealer and collector based in Paris, France, who was an expert on Modigliani's life and works, failed to produce any tangible information on "Seated Man with a Cane."  The only reference to the painting was a photograph of the painting when it was loaned by a Mr. Stettiner to the 1930 Venice Biennale. D'atri's ledger of paintings by Modigliani does not include any information on this work nor does it mention it.

In other words, there is a 14-year gap between the only public display of the "Seated Man with a Cane" and the purported sale of the painting in wartime Paris on July 3, 1944. It needs to be "filled."

"Seated Man with a Cane"

Page from the Venice Biennale catalogue, 1930

Note: the black and white photograph of the "Seated Man with a Cane" and the page from the 1930 Venice Biennale catalogue where the painting was exhibited come from the Archives of American Art, in Washington, DC.

Update from June 9, 2018

On April 18, 2018, New York State Judge Eileen Bransten denied Nahmad's motion to dismiss the case against him for the Modigliani painting. On June 5, 2018, Helly Nahmad, current possessor of the "Seated Man with a Cane," by Amadeo Modigliani, filed a request for judgment with the New York State Supreme Court to dismiss Mr. Maestracci's complaint against Nahmad, and to award monetary damages to Nahmad in the event of a ruling favorable to Maestracci equal to the value of the painting at time of purchase plus interest.

Source: Verified answer and counterclaim re "George W. Gowen as Limited Ancillary Administrator of the Estate of Oscar Stettiner, against Helly Nahmad Gallery, Inc., Helly Nahmad, (New York) individually, David Nahmad, and International Art Center, SA." NYSCEF Doc. No. 1819.

14 November 2011

Safeguarding art in Nazi Germany for the greater good: an outline

For as long as museums have existed, one of their cardinal raisons d’être has been to preserve the finest specimens of “CULTURE” for the greater good, for us, the general public. Although the old yarn remains true, which is to say that most museums with items within their collections more than a century old are comprised of objects of plunder, we forgive their sins for they embody the best of what the civilized world has to offer us, which is beauty embodied in objects of outstanding aesthetic and historical significance in their own right. Or so we hope or think. Not every museum is born equal, and as the world becomes increasingly digitized, the function of these august temples of culture shifts dramatically in emphasis. Should they continue to display objects or should virtual renditions suffice? After all, we sate our thirst for knowledge through Internet searches where we view, admire, study these objects. What we know as modern and as art become increasingly more complex and difficult to tease out as “art” or as “representation” or both. And should we be so picky? And who picks? But then, we are getting ahead of ourselves here.

Back to our museums as temples and guardians.

War and conflict are ideal scenarios during which everything is under threat of destruction and theft. Therefore, if the mission consists in salvaging as much as possible from a culture or a society under direct threat of enslavement, subjugation or, worse, annihilation, museums will, more often than not, become repositories of salvaged objects to be preserved for us and for the aggrieved.

We are now in the 1930s in Germany. As modern art comes under ruthless attack from the New Nazi Order, effective winter of 1933, tens of thousands of works of art are under threat of an unpredictable fate, especially at the hands of roaming bands of Brown Shirts or Sturm Abteilung (SA), eager to cleanse German towns and cities of all that is unhealthy, Jewish, Bolshevist, communistic, antithetical to the New Think.

Museum curators and directors, from as far away as the West Coast of the United States, are watching these troubling events very carefully. American, British, French, Dutch, Swiss cultural institutions have forged close ties with their counterparts in what has now become the Third Reich. Many of their German colleagues are now out of a job, fired because of their support of condemned artistic forms, like Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism, “Jewish” art. Untold numbers of artists can no longer exhibit their wares, and gradually their creative activity is being regulated before being completely prohibited.

Non-German museums and galleries send scouts and agents scurrying across Germany on a salvage mission. They have expense accounts with which to acquire all that they feel is ‘salvageable’ and worthy of incorporation into their paymasters’ collections. Auctions of collections belonging to the Reich’s political opponents and to recently dispossessed Jews are taking place with increasing frequency even in auction houses run by Jews like Paul Graupe’s famed boutique in Berlin. Opportunities abound as paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, furniture, disappear from apartments, houses, and galleries and enter the market like a gushing torrent. Hungry artists and dispossessed collectors are only too happy to sell their cultural possessions to be able to survive until making the fateful decision to emigrate. They sell to the agents and scouts of non-German museums and galleries. Enterprising brokers like Richard Zinser travel back and forth between Germany and the United States carrying works on paper, both classical and modern, in portfolios that they show to museum officials up and down the East Coast. Their provenance? Needy refugees only too happy to sell.

As Nazi cultural policies force out of museums onto the open market an increasing number of undesirable works, non-German museums and galleries are only too happy to collect them, through various Reich institutions like the Goebbels Ministry of Propaganda and Cultural Enlightenment. Salvage operation or crime of opportunity?

Whether they are the Saint Louis Museum of Art, the Carnegie Institute’s Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, or the newly-minted Museum of Modern Art in New York, all are on the lookout for ‘salvaging’ works of art from the Nazi maelstrom. How noble!

The salvaged works are either shipped directly to the United States or they transit through Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, and the United Kingdom.

Let’s pause here. What does “salvage” actually mean? In plain English, it is akin to a rescue. Hence, the non-German collecting world is eagerly sending emissaries throughout the Reich who meet with German officials, artists and dealers, to rescue works for their collections. Who could even criticize such laudable behavior? Nevertheless, shouldn’t we wonder where salvage ends and opportunism begins? What intentions must we lend to these heralds of Western culture embarked on an altruistic mission to ‘salvage’ what is museum-worthy from the clutches of the Nazis?

There are two kinds of ‘salvage’ operations: those which cast a very wide and undiscriminating net to rescue as many works as possible, regardless of their quality, and there are those “salvage” operations that place quality above quantity and focus solely on what our non-German museum and gallery scouts and agents deem to be of the best quality worth saving. The rest can be consigned to its fate.

In the latter case, salvage takes on the contours of a commercial cultural operation specifically geared to enhance the collections of the institutions that are underwriting these rescue efforts from a land torn by a cultural revolution of sorts, stoked by a racially-inspired political movement.

When we fast forward to the first decade of the twenty-first century, the non-German art world’s “salvage” and “rescue” operations of art disgorged by the Nazis becomes scrutinized anew as heirs of victims of those whose collections ended up on the open market as a direct result of the New Order’s “Kulturkampf” are now suing for recovery of what they view to be their property, forced out of their hands by unscrupulous Nazi officials.

Those works which are not coming under fire are those which were forcibly removed as objectionable or “degenerate” from dozens of State-owned museums and galleries under the same wave of cleansing of the Reich’s cultural assets to suit the new ideology. And there are thousands of these "salvaged"  works that were disgorged from German cultural institutions, which are now spread out across the globe, mostly in Western Europe and North America.

Strangely enough, the non-German art world has accepted the official Nazi mantra which, after 1945, became the official German view, that the ideologically-driven removals of undesirable art objects from German State collections were legitimate de-accessioning acts and, as such, should not be viewed as illegal. Since that time, those “de-accessioned” works have entered the most prestigious collections in the world, including, but not limited to:

  • The Museum of Modern Art of New York
  • The Solomon Guggenheim Museum of Art
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • The Brooklyn Museum of Art
  • The Cincinnati Art Museum
  • The Carnegie Institute’s Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA
  • The Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Arts
  • The St-Louis Art Museum
  • The San Francisco Museum of Art
  • The Tate Gallery
  • The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid, Spain

Museums and galleries in the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Italy, and so forth, and so on.

It would be nothing short of an earthquake if, all of a sudden, those thousands of “salvaged” works of art were to become subject to restitution and sent back to Germany to resume their place in the collections whence they came. However, the day that the German government decides to overturn one of the few Nazi laws that it has upheld with the unwavering support of postwar Allied powers will surely be a day of reckoning for the international art world and an obvious ethical and moral victory for the victims of Nazi persecution and, especially, for those artists who were hounded, ostracized, and, in many cases, eliminated, and their Jewish art dealers and collectors who either fled into exile or perished in the Reich.

Wishful thinking...

13 November 2011

When the gloves come off, does this mean WAR?

As we say in the United States, ‘them’s fightin’ words’! True, they are. Perhaps, they deliver more bang than bite. But they emerge from the deepest recesses of my fractured soul, enraged at the inability of our leaders, our representatives, our specialists, our experts, all of them, no exceptions made, to come up with solutions that make it possible for the victims of the Holocaust and the Second World War and the Third Reich and the Axis powers in Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and Asia, writ large, to find some measure of justice in the aftermath of global genocidal and ethnocidal conflict, to recover what was ripped from the bosom of so many as the extensions of their souls and likes. After all, it is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If this is true, the loss of cultural assets feels like the forcible removal of light from the eyes of the victims to benefit those who feel anointed to possess what is not rightfully theirs. At a larger scale, one can argue that the rights of individuals are trumped by the arrogance of groups and the States that lend succor to their racial and expansionist ambitions by which they impose their ideological and political will through force of law and arms. In short, the victims of cultural plunder—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, e tutti quanti….—are united in theory and principle under a single banner. Unfortunately, the trauma of loss through confiscation, requisition, outright theft, incarceration, and exploitation, was not sufficient to bring the victims under one flag, regardless of origin, race, ethnicity, creed, and belief.

The cynics tell us that this is what makes us human, that division is a prelude to conquest. Divide and conquer has always been the motto of those who wage war against their own people and those of other nations. Divided, we were at the end of the Second World War, made to rely on our communal groups, political parties, and national governments, to “do the right thing” for us all. By the way, the “we” and the “us” are used symbolically since my parents had not even met at V-E Day while I was an errant molecule in search of a home. The “we” and the “us” reverberate across generations, starting with the unmarked graveyards and mass burial pits of the former Soviet Union, the ash piles of Birkenau, the burial mounds of Katyn, the massacred villages of Northern Italy, Yugoslavia, and the thousands of unnamed places of death and destruction that pockmark the map of a warring planet.

Divided…. Why should we be divided in the first place? That is my question to all of you who read these pages. What is the benefit of arguing from one’s narrow communitarian interest? Better, more effective representation? Some of you might feel that there is nothing else that can be done and we should simply move on. That is definitely an option. But, if moving on is an option, then we should shutter down these pages and no longer discuss restitution as a basic human right of the victims of cultural plunder. As some cocky military leaders have repeatedly stated on the battlefields of history, surrender is not an option.

Not surrendering is an acknowledgment of a will to fight, to struggle, to advocate, to press, for something as vague and ambiguous as “justice.” Is it to be justice for all ? Or will it be justice for me? How about justice for you? Or is it really justice for them? Should justice be meted out in equal measures or in proportionate measures? Justice that is proportionate to the crime? How much is too much? How much is too little? What does it take to sate a broken soul and allow it to “move on”, to “find closure”?

Reality is altogether different. As history shows us repeatedly, the scars of trauma induced by all forms of violence are transmitted from one generation to the next. The degree to which the successive generations absorb and internalize the legacies of abuse and cruelty wrought upon their parents and grand-parents can determine whether or not they will act to avenge them or “act out” these inherited scars—to wit: most internal civil conflicts can be linked to the absence of meaningful settlements between members of divided communities. This is as old as history. But does it have to continue to be that way?

Looking ahead at the advent of 2012, how do we ensure that the crime of cultural plunder is appropriately punished and its victims fairly treated, across the board, regardless of who they are and where they live and what they represent? Yes, indeed, regardless of social class, status, rank, socio-economic standing, color-blind, community-blind, religion-blind, idea-blind. Blind to division and schism, solutions that are for all, not for the few, or the select.

I must tell you that nothing will be accomplished without an explicit recognition that cultural thefts cut across all boundaries, because the end result is the same—the rape of culture, way beyond that of “Europa” as Lynn Nicholas has postulated. We have to recognize that cultural theft violates the basic rights of all human beings living in a social and cultural matrix. Once we can recognize this basic fact, we can actually get to the next level. Cultural crime is a universal crime against all peoples, it is a crime which drives deep stakes into the specificity of what makes us who we are, which targets our identity as members of specific groups. Depending on the severity of the crime, it can result in an outright attempt at genocide or ethnocide. To acknowledge and accept the specificities of these crimes as bounded by cultural, social, and oftentimes religious matrices, is vital to our ability to move forward if we are to unite under one flag and fight for what is legitimately ours, that is the right to culture, our cultural rights, our right to own and display cultural assets without the fear of taking, without fear of forcible removals, because of who we are and what we are and where we live and for whom we vote or do not vote and what we speak or pray to, especially during times of internal or external conflicts.

The next level consists in agreeing that cultural plunder is a crime against humanity, perpetrated against individuals and the groups to which they belong.

Once we reach this particular point, the big question emerges: what is to be done?

What next? In all cases, national governments will endorse but not enforce the explicit righting of cultural crimes against individual citizens, arguing that these are the facts of life, and their citizens should settle for what they can. Moreover, statutes of limitations, problems associated with current possession of stolen cultural assets which are condoned as inalienable aspects of life in a civilized society—to the current possessor go the spoils!—will prevent or forestall any possible semblance of justice.

Hence, the only conceivable strategy to address the crime of cultural plunder is the international community of nations and groups that have a vested interest in righting the wrongs wrought against their cultural rights and to press for restitution of ill-gotten cultural assets.

I will leave you with this thought. As the strategy for global redress unfurls, you will hear more in these pages. Stay tuned as 2012 might become a very interesting year. After all, we have not much to lose and everything to gain.

08 November 2011

Nazi looted art conference at Lafayette College, Easton, PA: a debriefing (II)

Day 2: October 27, 2011

Lafayette College
Source: Lafayette College via Flickr
Lafayette College is a small architectural jewel nestled in a set of rolling hills not too far from Allentown. Every building on its tightly designed campus does not conform to any cookie-cutter design. In some sense, a student of architecture would have a genuine ‘field day’ at Lafayette College.

Tiffany Windows
Source: Lafayette College Art Collection
The college is home to several cultural institutions which are always enjoyable to visit because their contents give the visitor an insight into the tastes, proclivities and priorities of the curators, the art historians and the administration. One of the biggest surprises can be found at the College Library in the form of two large-size Tiffany stained glass windows that adorn different parts of the library and project at different times of the day a strange array of hues onto those who read and loll in their midst.

It is also in the Library where some of the lectures were staged on Day Two of the Conference. The room where the talks occurred was framed in a glass-encased corner of the Library which gave the proceedings a natural openness filled with the filtered light of a typical October day, not enough to compete with artificial lighting, not enough to prevent you from viewing projected Powerpoint slides.

The room was full of undergraduate students, faculty, staff, and out-of-town visitors, which lent the presentations a well-earned level of attention that one can only find on college campuses. This is a good time to take a break and muse on this intriguing phenomenon. Why do so many people who have never heard of “looted art,” “cultural plunder”, “degenerate art”, “restitution”, “Washington Principles,” “provenance research,” flock to these events? Granted, interested professors flog their flock into attending these presentations on pain of reprisals at exam time (joke!). However, the phenomenon is widespread and unexplainable when contrasted by the sheer indifference displayed by policymakers, so-called art experts, even historians themselves. It’s as if one senses a thirst to know more, to learn, to find out the details, to search for meaning, a thirst that is left unquenched by the strictures and preconceptions of academicians and professionals alike. So much for the soap box.

The presentations went well. Victoria Reed of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts provided a well-thought out description of how the MFA has treated claims for works and objects in its collections in recent years. A major cultural institution better known for its irascible refusal to restitute anything, especially antiquities, the MFA has gradually adapted to the complexities of art restitution and the circumstances under which objects might have changed hands illegally owing to racial and other forms of persecutions against their rightful owners.  Although there is a long way to go still, the MFA has demonstrated that, when called upon to make the difficult choice to restitute a claimed object, thereby de-accessioning it, the benefit of the doubt is being given to the claimant, thereby reversing a decades-old tradition of invoking traditional legal defenses to forestall restitution.

"Portrait of a Man And Woman In An Interior" by Eglon van der Neer
Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The two keynote lectures of Day Two were scheduled for the evening in a large amphitheater-like room where the “Rape of Europa” had been screened the previous evening. The first keynote was delivered by Jonathan Petropoulos, who teaches at Claremont-McKenna College in California, followed by Lucian Simmons, who heads up global restitution efforts at Sotheby’s in New York.

Jonathan Petropoulos, Phd
Source: Claremont McKenna College
The two presentations were remarkable for one reason only: they were both anchored in personal experience. Jonathan Petropoulos chose to regale the audience on how his interest in Nazi cultural policy morphed into a lifelong quest to come to grips with Nazi looted art and to “do the right thing” for claimants. On the other hand, Simmons unapologetically built on the fact that he was at Sotheby’s to optimize returns for “the house”—it is a for-profit operation after all!—and if art restitution can serve the interests of his employers while doing some good along the way, so much the better for it. Sure!

For those who love redemption stories, Petropoulos’ presentation was a case in point. Charming, articulate, deeply versed in his field, entertaining at times, the tall, soft-spoken professor from Claremont McKenna put forth the image of an honest do-gooder who, in the course of his crusade to get to the bottom of the looted art problematic, got in way over his head at times, risking his professional career, his reputation and, god forbid, even the safety of his family! No comment…well, yes, there will be comments, but not what you might expect.

Aside from being well-published, Jonathan Petropoulos came to prominence in the budding world of restitution of Nazi loot when, in the late 1990s, he stumbled on evidence that a painting by Claude Monet on loan at a museum in Boston had been pilfered in Paris by local agents of Nazi Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. That particular painting once belonged to the legendary Parisian Jewish art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. The painting was returned to the Rosenberg heirs, all was well and Jonathan was now a player in the art restitution field.Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (1903)

We bumped into each other while serving as directors of research at the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets (PCHA) in 1999 and 2000. While I focused on looted gold, Petropoulos took on the charge of investigating looted art. The final report of the PCHA speaks volumes (a thin one, to be honest) on its overall accomplishments. I will leave it at that.

"Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (1903)" by Camille Pissarro
Source: Artinfo
Years later, Petropoulos’ name and fortunes became indelibly linked, by his own making, to a notorious Nazi war criminal, master plunderer SS Captain Bruno Lohse, deputy commander of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) operation in German-occupied Paris, and, for a short time, actual head and master coordinator of anti-Jewish cultural plunder in German-occupied France, before his retreat to Germany in the summer of 1944, his brief incarceration, trial and conviction by a French military court (very light sentence), before becoming a very successful art dealer in … you guessed it!.... “degenerate art” and Impressionists from his luxury apartment in Munich. His business operations extended mainly to Switzerland and Lichtenstein. In short, Petropoulos had befriended Lohse and maintained a decade-long relationship with the former war criminal until Lohse’s death in 2007. The public perception of Petropoulos and Lohse centered on a complicated attempt at restituting a famed painting by Claude Pissarro (Quai Malaquais), the property of the Bermann-Fischer publishing fortune and the subject of a forced sale in Vienna before ending up in Lohse’s private collection. The claims and counterclaims are ugly and should be the subject of a separate article. Suffice it to say that the painting was finally sold at Christie’s in 2009.

Petropoulos came out of his keynote speech as a selfless crusader for the cause of claimants seeking to recover looted art. Someone in the audience asked him: “Why do you do it?” He replied that this is his life’s work and he must. Sigh!

Lucian Simmons
Source: Sotheby's
Lucian Simmons is a character. Witty, refreshingly light on his feet, impeccably-dressed, he cuts a very appealing figure while describing in a most understated way (oh! So British!!) his daily schedule busy brokering restitutions, recoveries, sales of recovered items, fending off Russian pseudo-mafiosi-like characters, while babysitting elderly women in upstate New York, all in a heartbeat, seven days a week. And, of course, in the midst of all of this, his Christmas days are routinely disrupted by restitution crises. Oy gevalt! Who would have known?! The trouble is that Lucian does very well for the house with the trade in recovered stolen cultural property. Trouble, I say? Well, yes, it is troublesome to think that one can earn so much money off of historically-centered cultural larceny with genocide and persecution as its moral backdrop, layered by failed and flawed recoveries in the postwar world, complicated by supposedly bona fide acquisitions which would transform current possessors into victims on par with Nazi victims! Well, yes, I have a problem with this, but that’s just me.

Restitution? How does one broker a restitution while working at Sotheby’s? More often than not, it is the result of a complex discussion between the consigner, the claimant, and “the house.” The goal is the sale. The outcome: who will profit from it? This is referred to as restitution. I call it a financial settlement that upholds the rights of the current possessor. And Lucian is a master at this craft. Not to fault him for it, but one must admit that it is a skewed vision of the overall framework that informs the global debate on cultural plunder and its legal and ethical consequences at the point of sale.

Nevertheless, after a hard day at the office, Simmons finds a way of trumpeting the positives of his heady job, emphasizing that good things come of these intersections with history.

Needless to say, one can take only so much from self-scripted redemption to unabashed optimization in the same evening. So much for the current state of affairs as pertains to Nazi looted art and current efforts at restituting plundered items to their rightful owners.

Nazi looted art conference at Lafayette College, October 26-28, 2011: a debriefing (I)

From left to right: Rachel Davidson, Diane Ahl, Radu Pribic
It has now been close to two weeks since Lafayette College in quaint Easton, PA, hosted a first-ever conference on Nazi looted art. Starting from scratch, the organizers of the conference, Professors Diane Ahl and Radu Pribic, brought together a group of speakers who represented different perspectives on the issue of looted art and art restitution.

Day 1: October 26, 2011

The conference opened on a screening of “The Rape of Europa”, a freewheeling adaptation of Lynn Nicholas’ landmark work of same name which detailed the Nazi-orchestrated plunder of works and objects of art across Europe, while focusing most of its attention on the Allied—read American—civilian and mostly military response to those exactions and the means taken to repair the damage caused by Nazi thefts.

This was my third viewing of “The Rape of Europa” The first time was on television, the second time was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, during a Jewish Film Festival. That screening was memorable only because I ran into Lynn Nicholas looking a bit lost in the line of viewers waiting to see the film being shown in the East Wing. When I asked her what she was doing there, she said simply that she wanted to be there in case anyone had questions about the movie. What? You mean you weren’t invited to speak at your own movie? No, was the answer. The third screening was in Easton. At the second screening, I noticed three things:

  1. someone intimately involved with production and scriptwriting decided to go for the schmaltz factor by inserting several high points of art restitution in the United States—the return of Marie Altmann’s famed paintings by Gustav Klimt, and the recovery of a painting by François Boucher from a Utah museum which had belonged to a member of the Paris-based heavily splintered Seligmann family. The true schmaltz occurred when a German citizen was featured as self-anointed rescuer of Judaica from his small town, the name of which escapes me completely. Not having anything to do with the “Rape of Europa,” it did, however, take on a life of its own by injecting the personal into the political, thus illustrating how a complex topic such as cultural plunder can transform daily lives into a quest for justice and, for others, redemption.
  2. the Russians were very emotional and steadfast about their desire to equate their policy of no-return of so-called ‘trophy art’ and the humanitarian catastrophe wrought upon them by the Wehrmacht, the SS, and the Luftwaffe against the former Soviet Union, especially during the years-long siege of Leningrad. Interestingly, and memorably, one of the hard-line ministers of culture who was interviewed in what is now Saint-Petersburg dropped a portentous hint, indicating that his countrymen would be willing to discuss the return of trophy art in 20 years or so. Since the movie was produced in the late 1990s, that would place a potential return date… within six to eight years. Now, that’s a sign of hope!
  3. the “Rape of Europa” spends an unnecessarily long, long time on the siege of Monte Cassino in Italy. That accursed monastery drew hellfire for weeks without harming German defenses, but managing to erase a major cultural monument and killing close to a thousand civilians huddled for safety in what they had rightfully viewed as a ‘sanctuary’ from the horrors of war. Needless to say, I cannot blame your average GI Joe for wondering why ten thousand men had to die for that rock.

The third screening reaffirmed what I had long suspected, that the subject of art looting per se was given short shrift throughout this award-winning documentary. Although well-illustrated in its broadest possible strokes, the “Rape of Europa” goes very light on the very complex and very heavy on the not-so-clear. To wit: the actual plunder of collections in occupied Europe was a complicated affair brought about by conflicting interests within the Nazi hierarchy (Goering, Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Rosenberg, von Ribbentrop, to name a few) and the plethora of local opportunists that the Nazis encountered in countries that they occupied, who were only too willing to provide their assistance, support and expertise in exchange for a cut of the booty. Too heavy on the not-so-clear is evidenced by the French episode on the Jeu de Paume and Rose Valland, the iconic heroine of art restitution in France on the verge of attaining sainthood should anyone pay close attention to the myths that have been designed around her career as an unwitting curator of the Musée du Jeu de Paume in downtown Paris during the period of German occupation and as the lead postwar restitution officer for a succession of failed French governments up until the early 1960s. 

Myth #1: Rose Valland volunteered for her mission to spy on the Germans at the Jeu de Paume; myth number two: she risked her life every day while taking copious notes on the ins and outs of looted works entering and leaving the Jeu de Paume; myth number three: no one knew that she spoke German. These are some of the many details that have filtered out into postwar revisionist history of cultural plunder in France.

Producers of "Rape of Europa": Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham, and Bonni Cohen
Source: Rape of Europa
On the plus side, I was delighted to finally meet up and converse with Nicole Newnham, one of the producers of the “Rape of Europa” who spoke candidly of her experiences making this beautifully-filmed and edited documentary on a subject that resonates even more today than it did a decade ago and which, for some corny reason, brought me close to tears, more so because we are still so far away from reaching a far-reaching solution to the long-term effects of the continental-wide plunder of cultural items during the Third Reich and the postwar occupation of Germany and Austria by Allied forces. It’s not so much the Rape of Europa as it is the rape of the cultural heritage of the victims of Nazism and Fascism, writ large.

01 November 2011

Confessions of an art looting “expert” (II)

Here’s a question: How did I get here?

Well, I will do my best to answer this impudent query of mine.

Main Gate at Birkenau
Source: Wikipedia
My story begins in the summer of 1967 when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with my parents while trekking through Poland in a red 2 CV Citroen, which was a real hit amongst our esteemed Polish friends. While I was astounded and fascinated by the massive concentration camp, my parents wanted to leave as quickly as possible. Needless to say, I was marked for life. I should take a short break here and tell you that both my parents are/were American expatriate artists who sought the Bohemian life in 1950s Paris after escaping from New York City and their respective families. They settled down in and around Montparnasse on the left bank and spent their lives painting, drawing, socializing, and plying their craft until death did them part.

Fast forward to the 1970s: I spent my adolescent years cutting my teeth on the hardscrabble political turmoil of the Parisian student movement. Not much needs to be said about three long years dodging nasty neo-Fascist gangs. That was enough for my political awakening and a constant reminder that some people take their Fascist politics very seriously even three decades after the death of Adolf Hitler and the onset of the Cold War.

In 1980, several years after graduating from Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, I became a consultant for the Office of Special Investigations at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC. Although my main duties were to help with lawyers’ investigations into the past activities of war criminals living in the United States—mostly Belorussians—I also focused on the postwar recruitment of Nazi war criminals by Allied intelligence, and especially American agencies. I found myself more often than not sifting through documents in the dusty stacks of the National Archives at 7th street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in downtown Washington. There, every day, I would peruse documents drafted by agents and analysts of the Office of Strategic Services describing how war criminals were escaping detection in the mid-to late 1940s and finding freedom and refuge in safe havens across Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. This was my first introduction to looted art—the trading of plundered art by Nazi criminals and collaborators to obtain exit papers, visas, forged identities, passports, so that they could enjoy the fruits of their plundering ways in faraway places. I was hooked, I was fascinated, I could not stay away.

Alphonse d'Amato
Source: Wikipedia
Fast forward to 1995: The Swiss banks are being pummeled by Edgar Bronfman, the scion of the Seagram’s fortune and a leader of the American Jewish community. He has recruited Senator Alphonse d’Amato to lead the charge against these banks for their systematic misappropriation of funds and assets deposited by individuals of Jewish descent during the 1930s and early 1940s in the vaults of hundreds of financial institutions across Swiss territory. Many of the account holders died during the Holocaust or never reclaimed their accounts and the bankers made away with their money and valuables. The Swiss bank litigations re-opened the wounds of the failed restitutions of the postwar era. And they paved the way for art restitution claims. A key element of the negotiations with the Swiss banks was the exclusion of cultural assets deposited in those banks from any settlement reached between the plaintiffs’ lawyers and the banks’ representatives. I joined a committee of experts at the law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll, to come up with a realistic estimate of the Swiss banks’ liability towards Holocaust victims. I was in good company: Willi Korte, the doyen of looted art investigations in the US; Sydney Zabludoff, a former CIA analyst specializing in black markets and money laundering; Fritz Oppenheimer, a Swiss banking specialist who taught us how to bill law firms; and Cees Wiebes, a Dutch expert on corporate cloaking during the Second World War. Three months of hard work yielded the following result: Swiss banks would have to pay 10 billion dollars in compensation to Jewish victims. The ultimate settlement reached several years after our finding: $1.25 billion. In other words, a toothbrush settlement.

In the spring of 1997, Willi Korte and I thought it would be a great idea to house a looted art database project at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The answer that we received was a resounding “NO” qualified as: “This project does not fit within the mandate of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.” Dejected but not defeated, we turned to Ori Z. Soltes, then director of the Klutznick National Jewish Museum at B’nai B’rith. We met with his board members and they greeted us with open arms. What a relief! The Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) was born.

Robert Morgenthau
Source: Wikipedia
No sooner had we announced publicly in early September 1997 HARP’s creation than Ronald Lauder made a similar announcement and established the Commission for Art Recovery (CAR) under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, of which he was the Secretary-Treasurer. Four months later, Lauder, in his capacity as chairman of the board of the Museum of Modern Art, faced the wrath of two Jewish families whose paintings were on loan from the Leopold Collection in Vienna, for an exhibit of Egon Schiele’s works at MOMA in late 1997. In early January 1998, spurred by HARP’s research into the provenance of those works and the odd way in which the show had been mounted, the New York Police department was ordered by then District Attorney of Manhattan, Robert Morgenthau, son of the late Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, to seize the two incriminated paintings by Egon Schiele—Night City III and Portrait of Walli—and prevent them from leaving the United States so as to give the aggrieved families a fair hearing and a reasoned shot at pleading their case for restitution.

The Walli case dragged on for another 13 years while Night City III returned to Austria. However, the seizure of the two paintings struck the Austrian government broadside and provoked an unprecedented debate about cultural plunder and restitution in the homeland of Ruth Jarai, rightful owner of “Walli” and of Marie Altmann, rightful owner of “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” by Gustav Klimt. The seizure led to the enactment of a series of restitution laws aimed at righting some of the wrongs of Austria’s post-Anschluss Nazi past.

"Of course I'm back: I just nipped out for a bit of wall decoration"
Art Theft, Stanley Arthur Franklin, 1967
Source: The Book Palace

Direct action—Drastic circumstances require drastic remedies even if it means forcing the hands of foreign governments, shaking up the international art market but not enough to rattle it into compliance. After several years, the status quo returned quickly, all was well, the fear of subsequent seizures waning as lawyers and diplomats ran roughshod over the renewed debate on restitution of looted cultural assets.

Although the Washington Conference of December 1998 had convened representatives and delegates from more than 47 countries to discuss how to resolve these decades-old problems of property returns to Jewish victims, the pundits went home, satisfied that they had done their duty to pledge to ‘do something.’ National commissions emerged in many European countries to investigate the wrongs of that war with limited impact on the quest for historical truth and the imposition of equitable remedies for spoliated families and their heirs. In the absence of meaningful public policies aimed at righting those historical wrongs, national governments across Europe and the American government, left it to the ‘market’ to adjudicate the merits of Holocaust-era cultural claims, thus handing over to the legal community an inherently political debate requiring political solutions. In the United States, the Clinton Administration was beholden to its donors and was reluctant to investigate the ill-doings of American museums during the life of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets (PCHA) which had been voted into existence by an act of Congress in June 1998. The Commission proved quickly to be ineffectual in carrying out its Congressional mandate and, in essence, violated the terms of the legislation that had empowered it, content to rehash the usual mantras of wartime plunder and avoid the thorny questions of looted cultural assets entering the United States. Those stolen, unrecovered assets entered countless museums, which receive substantial Federal fiscal advantages in the form of tax-exemptions. A largess unmatched in the rest of the world where cultural institutions are mostly run by national governments. Surprisingly, the PCHA ruled that there was no looted art problem in the United States and that further research would be needed to ascertain the opposite. How convenient! The Commission went out of business in the spring of 2000, as quietly as it had come into existence.

Fast forward to the Holocaust-era Assets Conference of June 2009 in Prague: this follow-up to the 1998 Conference in Washington, DC, was born to fail, especially as pertains to the question of looted art. Pre-conference planning was secretive, heavily politicized, did not involve claimants and their representatives, nor did it tap into the pool of international experts in art restitution matters, relying instead on government representatives overseeing questions pertaining to looted art or trophy art in their respective countries. Hence, despite some token input from groups like the European Commission on Looted Art (ECLA), the fate of claimants’ cultural assets rested almost exclusively in the hands of museums’ representatives and government civil servants with international Jewish organizations unwilling to commit themselves to a meaningful strategy aimed at restituting looted cultural assets. Not a pretty picture. The end result is well-known: a diluted declaration of intent known as the Terezin Declaration which serves as a basis for future discussions. It is left up to each conference stakeholder (governments and NGOs) to interpret and apply the Declaration as they see fit, which is not saying much at all.

Hopeless? Maybe. Really hopeless? Not quite. But much time and energy has been lost in endless, sterile debates which do not address the core issues centered on the identification and restitution of looted cultural assets.

The offspring of the June 2009 Prague Conference is the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), based in Prague and overseen by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After muddling along for two years, ESLI has finally gotten a sense of itself as an organization with a mission that has 46 foreign stakeholders and NGOs to bring about proposals for lasting solutions to reach some form of closure regarding the compensation of Holocaust victims, the restitution of looted art and Judaica, the provision of care to needy survivors, and the settlement of immovable property questions especially in Eastern Europe.

Source: WRJO

Its advisory council is comprised of five working groups that address those areas, including one for looted cultural assets and one for Judaica. The mission of ESLI is open-ended and it will be as effective as its participants are willing to make it despite the fact that there is great skepticism as to its capacity to survive and make any meaningful contribution to the general state of things.

At this point, ESLI is the only organization of its kind in the world which can address issues pertaining to Holocaust-era looted property within the framework of an international forum. Its reach can be wide and extensive only if its members allow it to be. We will see.

Meanwhile, restitution efforts continue to be focused on expensive works of art, a small unrepresentative percentage of the vast numbers of works and objects of art still to be identified and located around the world.

True, it is true that for the past ten years or so dozens of very expensive works of art have been returned to their rightful owners. More often than not, though, settlements have been reached with the current owners who retained title to those stolen cultural items with cash allotments to the victims’ families as compensation. Hence, the new justice, cloaked under the pretense of restitution, has become a vehicle for accommodating current owners at the expense of the claimants’ rights to recover their property. That’s what happens when governments fail in their fiduciary and humanitarian duties to come to the aid of those who need it the most.

Here we are in late 2011 wondering if mechanisms can be put into place to ensure that victims of Nazi thefts of cultural assets can and will have their day in court to recover what is rightfully theirs.

The complication lies mostly in the identification of those looted cultural items. Indeed, with the passage of time and the disappearance of those who witnessed or suffered directly from the thefts, the subsequent generations have lost the knowledge that their families had owned works of art, objects of art, furniture, accessories that had been forcibly removed from former residences in troubled Europe. Thus, the tables have turned. It is not so much up to claimants to speak up about their losses, but instead, the onus falls on those whose task it is to research those cultural crimes and uncover the identity of the stolen objects. In other words, the knowledge of these crimes has waned from the memories of the victims and the responsibility to ensure that those crimes are documented and brought to justice falls on those whose specialty it is to uncover the evidence and study the circumstances under which those crimes were committed, the paths taken by those objects from owner to owner and the possible whereabouts of those stolen objects. The research is overwhelming and cannot be accomplished by lone individuals. It must be grounded in an institutionalized, international undertaking whereby archival materials are systematically searched, analyzed, and relevant data are extracted from them and placed in digital repositories which allow for sophisticated searches of objects, owners, collectors, perpetrators, locations of thefts, dates, and descriptions, to name a few of those categories.

In other words, the future of art restitution efforts lies in systematic historical research and analysis. The research produces the information on unrestituted objects of art which triggers investigations and the search for victims’ heirs. Until such research efforts are put into place, the most effective tools of restitution at the disposal of claimants, at least in the United States, is for Federal authorities to intervene on their behalf, seize objects from current owners and return them to the rightful owners, assuming, of course, that the research underlying the cases is flawless.

An uncompromising position, you might say? What is the alternative then? More of the same? Upholding the sacred rights of current possessors when everyone knows that theft does not convey good title to the next owner? As Steven Bibas wrote in his thoughtful 1994 essay on statutes of limitations, traditional legal defenses as invoked by current owners only abet art thefts at the expense of the rights of claimants. Justice trumps all other considerations when it comes to righting the wrongs wrought by acts of genocide more than seven decades ago. There is no statute of limitations on genocide or any other forms of mass slaughter and crimes against humanity. That’s the plain truth.