24 March 2011

ERR database—UNB section [unbekannt/unknown owners]

It's unclear when the Germans--SS and ERR staff combined--at the Jeu de Paume adopted this nomenclature of unbekannt or UNB for works and objects whose owners were unknown. And yet, that category begins almost as quickly as thousands of objects of art, tchatchkas, furniture, paintings, drawings, libraries, stream into the rooms of the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume set aside to welcome them for sorting and redistribution somewhere...

At first blush, it makes sense.  If you don't know from whom you are stealing an object and don't really care who the owner is as long as he or she is a Jew, just give it that nomenclature of being unknown.  UNB has a certain edge to it, a Nazi edge, the edge of a Nazi thief plunderer who remains completely indifferent to the plight of his/her victim, in this case his/her Jewish victim.  SS Colonel von Behr is the nominal head of the ERR in Paris. An unpleasant fellow, former director of the German Red Cross--try that on for size, German Red Cross and SS uniforms all folded into one cozy suprematist image.  Mr. von Behr is very aggressive about his anti-Jewish mission in occupied France and quickly teams up with a local band of thugs, former police officers and inspectors as well as hardened crooks and criminals, the infamous Paris Gestapo or the Bonny-Lafont gang, or what will become sadly known as the 'bathtub gang' because of its members' proclivities towards torturing to death their mostly Jewish victims in bathtubs filled with ice cold water inside plush apartments nestled in the better neighborhoods of Paris.

From late 1940 to the end of 1941, von Behr is hard at work ordering the ransacking of Jewish-owned apartments and shaking down wealthy Jews across Paris.  The fruit of his thirst for material goods that don't belong to him ends up fitting into close to 60 crates sitting in the Louvre.  They are all marked UNB or unbekannt or unknown owners.  And so begins the story of the UNB objects.

From von Behr's roguish and uncontrolled antics as an anti-Jewish plunderer, the ERR settles in and rationalizes its illegal acquisitions of Jewish cultural assets.  Many paintings and works on paper that are seized fit into the broad category of 'modern'---in Nazi-speak, that becomes 'degenerate'.  Those hundreds of 'modern' items are placed in separate rooms awaiting an uncertain fate.  Quickly, ERR staffers forget how these items even entered the Jeu de Paume and when they return to them more than a year after their confiscation, the institutional memory of how and from whom is lost, hence they become UNB.  But, because many of these works belonged to high-flying collectors and dealers in and around Paris, they bear labels and other identifying markings on their backs.  So, from UNB, they can actually be assigned to a particular owner.  But, bureaucracy being what it is, the ERR staff will end up inventorying these items as UNB, noting however that they could be matched up with specific owners like Paul Rosenberg, Levy-Hermanos, Weil-Picard, etc...

My particular concern today was the numbering sequence.  If you follow the numbers, there should be 4059 items labeled and inventoried as UNB.  And yet, there are not more than 440 for which a description has survived.  What about the other 3500 or so? We continue to investigate what they were and where they went.

Last but not least, most of the UNB items were seized before or during the Mobel-Aktion (M-Aktion) which began in spring of 1942 and ended two years later, leaving behind desolation and empty, wrecked dwellings across occupied France.

Therefore, UNB owes its existence to the violence of the ERR's methods in occupied France against those whose identities did not matter when they entered their dwellings to steal their property.

23 March 2011

ERR database—MA-B section

by Marc Masurovsky
[updated on November 1, 2017]

The MA-B section of the ERR database consists of 1403 datasets (as of November 1, 2017) describing paintings and works on  paper stolen by the staff of the ERR from Jewish families during the so-called Mobel-Aktion that raged throughout German-occupied France, Belgium, and Holland from mid-1942 to the spring and summer of 1944.

Tens of thousands of apartments and residences were forced open, their contents ransacked, taken to triage centers, before being crated and shipped to the Reich.

When it came time to sort the works of art, the M-Aktion teams (personnel assigned to Mobel-Aktion) functioned as relays between the ERR and the local art market.  Hence, if any object seized during M-Aktion and taken to the Jeu de Paume for processing did not 'make the cut,' it was relegated to M-Aktion.  In other words, it could be made available to art dealers and collectors far and wide as long as they were willing to come to Paris and 'do business.'

My concern today was to enter descriptions of items that had been omitted during the initial round of data entry.  The reason for this is simple enough to me but not very obvious to anyone else, most probably.  The ERR staff produced close to 20,000 cards for all sorts of cultural items that they had confiscated and prepared for shipment to the Reich.  A large number of items were not carded.  Hence, when the ERR database was being produced, its contents were derived exclusively from these cards which were part of a microfilm collection designated as M1943 at the National Archives in College Park, MD.  Information on the missing MA-B items (the B stands for Bilder or pictures) could only be found on inventories that the ERR staff had drawn up month by month as their internal audit to document the inflow and outflow of confiscated objects.  These inventories contained a more complete listing of objects falling, in this instance, under the MA-B category.

Therefore, I had to go through all of the inventories for MA-B objects and identify those that had not been carded, and, therefore, were not in the database.  The most glaring gaps for objects included between MA-B 600 and 1000.

New photographs have also been added to MA-B datasets, some of which are wonderful representations of the artists' work, especially Marc Chagall, Louis Cabie, Jules Pascin, and many others.

Feel free to consult the database at www.errproject.org/jeudepaume.

Updates on the ERR database of art objects looted in German-occupied France

by Marc Masurovsky

This is the first of a series of updates on additions and changes made to the database of art objects looted in German-occupied France and Belgium by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).  Most of the objects in this database, which can be found at www.errproject.org/jeudepaume, were processed through the Jeu de Paume in downtown Paris.  Once processed, they were either shipped to the Reich, sold on the art market, or set aside to be 'destroyed.'


The database was officially released to the general public on October 18, 2010, as a project underwritten by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany and technically supported by programmers working for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC.  The project itself began in 2005.  Core data from 20,000 cards typed up by ERR staff between 1940 and 1944 were digitized into the database.  Scanned images of the cards were attached to each dataset and, where available, photographs of the objects were also linked to the individual datasets.

The project resumed in 2009 after a hiatus of several years.  For technical reasons, it was parked at the USHMM in Washington, DC.  There, I supervised the effort, largely staffed by enthusiastic volunteers from a dozen or so countries scattered over three continents.  Fortunately, the ERR database project, as it was known, lends itself perfectly to such a decentralized structure since it is web-based and all updates could be done from very remote locations.

Since the release of the database, there has been a crying need for updates to the data now available for everyone to see and scrutinize.  Since the purpose of the database is to provide a wartime and, when possible, a postwar history of the stolen objects, it becomes essential to ascertain whether or not these objects were found, and returned to their rightful owners.  That information resides in the archives of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris, France--also known as the Ministere des affaires etrangeres.  These records, in a discreet record group referred to as the Fonds Rose Valland, are located at the new archival repository of the Courneuve in the northern suburbs of Paris.  This archive contains the restitution files of the families and individuals whose objects were confiscated and taken to the Jeu de Paume for 'processing.'  In most instances, we can verify if the objects in the database correspond to the objects mentioned in these restitution families.  That is not always the case, but the world is a very imperfect place.

The restitution information is now being added to the database, an effort that will be on-going for months to come.

Part of this blog will be devoted, therefore, to indicate which parts of the database have been updated so that you can consult the records as you see fit.

02 March 2011

Ardelia Hall

Ardelia Hall (1899-1979) is the quintessential personification of a one-woman campaign to track down looted art and restitute thousands of these missing works to their rightful owners.  Her art restitution mission lasted for 16 years, from 1946 to 1962,while she served as a cultural affairs officer at the US Department of State.  A trained art historian she specialized in ancient Chinese art and before the war worked at the Department of Asian Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts under whose auspices she participated in archaeological digs in China during the early 1930s.  After a brief stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Ardelia Hall entered the government as a cultural officer of the US Department of State.  In June 1946, she received the files of the recently-disbanded Roberts Commission, a wartime American organization that laid down the framework for American attempts to locate, recover, and return looted works of art in Europe and prevent their entry into the United States.  Overnight, she became the point person on art restitution in the US government.  Ardelia Hall managed to keep the issue of art restitution alive while most politicians and career government officials joined the increasingly fractious choruses of the Cold War.  In retrospect, Ardelia Hall stands out as one of the few champions of the rights of Holocaust victims to reclaim their lost possessions and perhaps their only voice within the US government.

Her quest for missing works of art led her to France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and back to the United States which, by the 1950s, had once again become a thriving art market, a welcoming safe haven for art works wrongfully removed from their rightful owners at the hands of the Nazis only to be sold to and incorporated into leading American private and public collections by unwitting and unscrupulous art merchants alike.

The story of this unsung heroine has never been told, it has only been hinted at in a series of books and documentaries pertaining to the looting of Europe’s cultural heritage between 1933-1945.  The story of Ardelia Hall resonates today in the wake of the depredations inflicted upon the cultural institutions of the Iraqi people.  Had she been alive today, her voice would have resonated throughout the halls of the US government in protest over such devastation.

Once anointed with her new mission, Ardelia Hall’s team of art restitution experts scoured the European countryside in search of lost collections, gathered them at collecting points and ensured their safe return to the countries whence they originated.  She also investigated on her own initiative dozens of leading art dealers in Europe and the United States whom she suspected of harboring stolen works of art for profit.  Her quest for justice also led her to forge working partnerships with the US Army and its legal arm, the Provost Marshal’s Office, to flush out works of art that had been illegally brought back to the United States by returning servicemen and officers.

Ardelia Hall worked hand in hand with two other art restitution specialists, Rose Valland, in France, and Evelyn Tucker in Austria.  Together, these three women took on the postwar governments of Western and Central Europe, the senior leadership of the Allied occupation military governments in Germany and Austria and the unrepentant representatives of the international art market.

Death of Marilyn Henry

I regret to announce the passing of one of the most extraordinary journalists of the Jewish community who stood for the rights of Holocaust survivors throughout her active and dynamic existence. Her name: Marilyn Henry.

She will be always remembered for her relentlessness, her tenacity, her love of all things Jewish, and, most importantly, for her sincere attachment to the truth, regardless of where the chips may fall. Among other things, she is the author of a critical history of the Claims Conference. She was on the verge of completing a major work on art restitution. Marilyn Henry died yesterday evening at 9:28pm at her home near Teaneck, NJ. I've lost a great friend and survivors have lost an advocate.

Here are some samples of her writings: