18 April 2011

A comprehensive database of looted art: fantasy or reality?

At present, there is no comprehensive database for works of art and objets d’art looted during the Second World War and under the Nazi regime.

Let’s assume that a comprehensive database of looted art objects is created and operational. What would it look like?

It would be dynamic, not static. In other words, it would link different types of events together to recreate a historical context for each object and its purported owner. This comprehensive database would be a dynamic beast acting as an intelligence tool for the market, the claimants, and law enforcement, a market research instrument, and a tracking device for lost objects.

Do we start from scratch and create such a database or do we try and make do with what already exists and improve upon it?

That all depends on what type of result you might expect. Both solutions can cost the same amount of money, resources, and time. One relies on a bottom-up approach with a fresh team of experts, researchers, data entry specialists and programmers, while the other stakes its credibility on the ability of stakeholders to work collaboratively, unlock their proprietary databases, build sophisticated interfaces to link these far-flung efforts. Assuming that one can set aside corporate, governmental, and ego-driven considerations to allow for this type of collaboration, the question will still remain: what will the interface accomplish? What results do we expect? What improvements will be needed across the board to create the equivalent of a comprehensive database? As Hamlet said, that’s the rub.

How will it affect the international art market?

One consequence will be the production of reliable and detailed provenances on a wide variety of objects that either come up for sale or are accessioned into museum collections or which can already be found in private and public collections around the world. In other word, the database will make it very difficult for anyone to claim ‘willful ignorance’ when selling or buying or donating or lending an object.

Where there are uncertainties about the provenance of an object, the database will contain sufficient circumstantial and contextual data to allow the researcher to either infer certain notions about the origin of the object under consideration or establish with a fair amount of accuracy the nature of the gaps in the provenance and how best to answer them. One must remember that there will always be a certain degree of uncertainty about the origin of most objects entering or leaving the market. The function of this database is to reduce these uncertainties.

The existence of such a tool raises a number of policy questions which hark back to the Washington Conference on Holocaust Assets of December 1998.

The international conference produced a set of so-called Washington Principles which have become a milestone and point of reference for the international art trade, museum community, and global cultural policy pertaining to Holocaust-era thefts and recovery efforts.

I will cite only those principles which are particularly relevant:
  • share results of research on Nazi thefts
  • advocate openness and transparency with respect to archives, research and dissemination of relevant information
  • encourage research into public collections and promote the search for heirs
  • establish provenance research projects in the private sector as a routine practice
  • promote and implement international cooperation among interested groups
  • create a guide to archives and a central repository of relevant data

The good news is that we have at least one guide produced by the American Association of Museums to assist international provenance research efforts. And there is a modicum of international cooperation among some institutions with respect to specific projects. However, the not-so-good news is that there is very little dissemination of research results on Nazi thefts, there is systematic opacity in the field; there has been erratic research within museums, often motivated by ignorance of the details of the Nazi-sponsored plunder, thus producing ‘false’ positives. There have been few if no efforts to seek out heirs except those deployed by a number of for-profit entities and NGOs. And there are no indications that, aside from the main auction houses and a handful of art dealers, the international art trade pays even remote attention to questions of due diligence and provenance research.

In the United States, the main museum organization is a self-policing entity which does not clearly define what constitutes ‘best practices’ for conducting provenance research and minimizing exposure to accusations of harboring loot.

One positive example of international cooperation in the recovery and restitution of looted cultural property came about shortly after the sacking of the Baghdad Museum in 2003. Within two weeks of the plunder, a series of meetings were held in Paris and London, bringing together under one roof scholars, archaeologists, antiquities officials, dealers, Culture Ministry officials from various countries, and members of NGO’s like UNESCO and ICOM. These officials established the framework for joint collaboration in order to recover thousands of objects that were now entering the international art trade and possibly even private and public collections. The group agreed that the most urgent priority consisted of building a database of the looted objects. Within a month, the Swiss government agreed to underwrite its initial expense at a cost of 250,000 Swiss Francs. This sum would allow the group to digitize the Museum’s inventory and thus facilitate recovery. The data were standardized to conform to the Object ID used by Interpol in its database of looted objects. In other words, they defined a common standard. Very shortly thereafter, recoveries occurred in Jordan and Turkey and warnings had been issued throughout the international art market as far as New York and London.

Over the last three years, Interpol has been calling for the creation of complete inventories, closer monitoring of the international art trade, requiring proof of ownership before any trade occurs, and increased cooperation between law enforcement and the art trade.

In other words, where there is a will, there is a way. After Holocaust-era claimants pass on, their heirs may or may not continue to press for some form of recovery in the years to come. Nevertheless, the problem of looted art will not go away all by itself. The larger issues pertaining to loot and plunder go far beyond the Jewish specificity of the question and preoccupy most countries of the world as they experience daily assaults on their cultural heritage. This is where we can make a clear difference and draw up a new international framework for finding concrete and workable solutions that we can apply over time, but sooner rather than later.