09 May 2011

Lessons of the May 6-7, 2011, World War II Provenance Research Seminar

An event such as this one does not happen very often, especially not in Washington, DC.

Co-sponsored by the National Archives and the two leading museum associations in the United States, partially underwritten by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, this seminar promised to deliver a hefty dose of knowledge and information culled from the provenance research experience of American museums.

Who came?

In attendance were representatives from over 50 American museums, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and one museum from Zurich, Switzerland. The two global leaders of the auction market were on hand, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, as well as a handful of American restitution lawyers, representatives of claimants’ organizations, the New York-based Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO), the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Claims Conference).

The director of the archives at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to show the flag for France, one can only presume that it was a last-minute decision but a good one at that. Only one claimant was in attendance: the heirs of Paul Rosenberg whose archive is being offered for research via the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A number of independent researchers were in the room, from Canada, France, the United States, Austria, and the United Kingdom. The US Department of State sent a delegation as well, perforce.

However, no scholars of the Second World War and the Nazi era were invited, except for yours truly, a strange feeling since the Holocaust is, well, a historical event that engulfed tens of millions of individuals on a continental scale for 12 long and painful years.

What’s new?

The field of provenance research has not evolved in substance, only in numbers. The training programs are seriously flawed since they are not equipped to provide contextual and forensic content to those who are not familiar with this line of research.

The emphasis of the conference has been heavily weighted, almost untenably so, towards resources in Germany and Holland. Not a bad thing in and of itself, in fact, those resources are extraordinary and growing by leaps and bounds, but they are solely and exclusively focused on market disruptions within the former Reich and German-occupied Holland. There is no novelty here, simply additional layering of information. And, yet, as was pointed out by several individuals, not many, the thefts of art plagued 19 countries. Should sought objects have entered the Netherlands and Germany, one can only be so lucky, resources are available to garner information about them, assuming, of course, that these objects fit within a specific art-historical mold.

Discrimination through art history

Not to make a big deal about this, but…

The bias of art historians and museum experts remains as pronounced today as it has always been ever since the issue of looted art entered into popular consciousness. From the forlorn days of recovery in the post-1945 world to the present, research remains limited to the great masters of Western culture who have entered the pantheon of US museums. There still is no room for the thousands of artists whose works were the subject of misappropriation but the appreciation of which never extended into the collecting habits of Tier One and Tier Two museums in the United States as well as objects produced by other cultures, three-dimensional objects and decorative pieces. As one curator indicated from the Harvard Museums, provenance research is limited to works in their collections. Ergo…

What is to be done?

Unbeknownst to the organizers of this two-day provenance fiesta, or if they do know, they simply cast it aside, many attendees moped about the crying need for international coordination of research into looted art, including some of our colleagues from Germany. They request federated or unified resources on-line and human in order to strengthen and broaden research talent and resources. Training is sorely lacking as most acknowledge that they are overwhelmed by the level of complexity inherent to conducting research into the whereabouts of works that changed hands illicitly over decades. And yet, there is no recognizable effort by the Museum associations to promote the kind of training that is essential if one is to harness the complexities of art thefts that occurred within a genocidal context over 60 years ago.

What can be the answer to such striking levels of inaction and institutionalized passivity? Independent efforts that lie outside the museum community are our only hope, fueled by organizations, foundations, and perhaps even research institutes in Europe and the Americas whose interest lies in providing utmost transparency in the revelation of the myriad ways in which art works and objects have been mishandled until today. For instance, there is a glimmer of hope in Prague where the European Shoah Legacies Institute (ESLI) is finally coming together and may in fact one day find ways of encouraging and promoting what precisely the US museum community is loath to do—training and contextualized historical research into the wartime and postwar fate of looted objects of art. Also, in Munich, the Central Institute for Art History possesses over 8000 photographs of objects that include many which were forcibly removed from France and Belgium. The Institute appears to be willing to promote such international exchanges of ideas and resources and its invitation is most welcome.

Last but not least…

For once, US museum officials have acknowledged that their attention has been too focused on Old Masters and Impressionists and must extend to three-dimensional objects from Asia. This is good since the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, appears to be leading the charge, albeit modestly.

A parting shot

The future lies in full transparency of resources and the revamping of thousands of so-called provenances so that they reflect accurately the sinews of ownership that go along with objects that are hundreds of years old or even simply seventy years old. Museums must promote the accurate labeling of those histories so as to inform their public of the extraordinary journeys that those objects have taken in order to reach their walls. Until such time, opacity will reign supreme, intellectual dishonesty will veil the truth behind the histories of those objects and the ensuing lapses in ethical behavior will dominate a field that ought to be celebrating its resources and contributions to world knowledge about art.