10 May 2011

More on restitution in postwar Italy

Renewed attention is being given to the scope and breadth of objects of art plundered by the Nazis and their allies which entered the art market in Italy during the fateful years of the Third Reich and beyond. An upcoming seminar to be held in Milan on June 23, 2011, is being co-sponsored by the global auction house, Christie’s, and the Art Law Commission of the Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA). It will bring together international specialists and lawyers adept at working on art restitution cases including the New York law firm of Herrick, Feinstein, and the Commission on Art Recovery (CAR).

The goal is to paint a broad picture of the state of affairs in postwar Italy regarding the restitution of Holocaust-era looted art, what can be done about improving the climate of restitution in a country that has long prided itself for having taken the lead in the search for and recovery of works of art forcibly removed from its territory.

And therein lies the rub…

Successive Italian governments—and there have been a great many of them!—have focused their attention almost exclusively on the plunder initiated by Nazi Germany when it sent its troops deep into Italy after the removal of Mussolini in 1943. Hence, the official window of plunder in Italy has always been considered to be a ‘foreign’ affair, the responsibility for which must be laid at Germany’s feet between 1943 and 1945. Moreover, in a cynical move to prevent plundered art from leaving the country, the Italian government appears to be commingling all plundered art as 'cultural property.' Should that be the case, this signals an ominous turn against the possibility of recovering Holocaust-era cultural goods found in Italy.


Once upon a time, back in 1922, there was a man by the name of Benito Mussolini whose March on Rome heralded the rise to power of Fascism which lasted a good 21 years, not bad for a political novice and former newspaper editor.

During that time frame, the Fascist Party ran amok against its opponents, harassing them, arresting them, imprisoning them, and when it deemed fit, murdering them “while trying to escape.” Many others were forced into exile or confined to the ‘villeggiatura’, a semblance of house arrest in the deep rural south of Italy for anti-Fascist intellectuals. All the while, opponents’ property was seized, stolen, and reincorporated into the economy of Fascist Italy, if it didn’t end up in the homes of prominent Fascist dignitaries.

In 1938, the Fascist government edicts the so-called “Manifesto of Race” which defines who is a Jew, aping the Nazi government and foreshadowing Vichy’s contribution to anti-Semitic legislations by two years. From that time on, Jews are no longer safe in Italy, nor is their property.

Hence, the questions that should be asked at this seminar bear especially on the 21 years of Fascist rule, which include 5 years of pre-Nazi invasion anti-Jewish persecution.

The art market

Italy remained an open market, regardless of Fascist strictures, importing and exporting and doing business with countries around the globe. The Italian art world continued to maintain good relations with its neighbors, buying, selling, and trading. As it turns out, Italy was a convenient place for Nazi dealers and museum officials to meet up with their counterparts in Italy and from other countries.

During the height of the anti-Jewish persecutions in German-occupied Europe, Italian art dealers were more than happy to accept as payment, in lieu of cash, works of art which Nazi officials did not deem suitable for their collections, especially modernists. Where did those works go?

As importantly, Northern Italy was a hotbed of smuggling and contraband of all manners of commodities, including art, during the period of German occupation, activities often supervised by Nazi intelligence operatives, the most notorious being Freddy Schwend, based in Merano.

And one should not forget the Vatican, which curried favor to all sorts of authoritarian, racialist regimes in the 1930s and 1940s, enabling safe passage in the late 1940s and 1950s for untold numbers of Axis collaborators and plunderers on their journeys across the Mediterranean Sea and into the Americas, under the pretext that they had solid anti-Communist credentials.

On a final note, Italy came up during the May 6-7, 2011, World War II Provenance Research Seminar in Washington, DC, within the framework of an ambitious project overseen by the National Gallery of Art to fully document the acquisitions made by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.  The Count Contini-Bonacossi had been Mr. Kress' 'art advisor'.  Contini-Bonacossi's credentials placed him as a major Italian art dealer with privileged ties to Hitler and Goering's minions as well as with their intermediaries operating in German-occupied France, Belgium, and Holland.  Something to keep in mind...

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