26 June 2011

The Leopold Museum: where North and South meet

On 3 May 2011, the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna inaugurated its new section on “Tribal Art” by organizing a sale of over 100 high-quality items of African origin acquired over the decades by the late Dr. Rudolf Leopold. The Dr. Leopold who prolonged for decades the agony of the Bondi family by refusing to restitute to them their “Portrait of Walli” which had been misappropriated after the Anschluss of March 1938 by a Nazi art dealer, Friedrich Welz.

Dr. Kwame Opoku-Bonsu
Source: Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology
This same Dr. Leopold turned out to be an enthusiast of African art. Who would have known? Even the “Modern Ghana” author, Dr. Kwame Opoku, expresses his surprise, a surprise also shared by the Dorotheum.

Dr. Opuku wonders why there is a total absence of information on past ownership and sources for the African pieces sold by the Dorotheum, a situation that afflicts nearly all African artifacts available in developed nations. Surprise, surprise…

In short, the opaque and dubious practices of the Leopold Museum in acquiring 19th and 20th century works of art extended as well to African artifacts. Hence, North meets South at the Leopold Museum as the plight of African cultures to recover their prized possessions intersects with that of claimants seeking the return of their works of art looted during the Nazi era and currently owned by institutions such as the Leopold Museum.

25 June 2011

Revisiting the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated Art—13 years later.

At the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets which took place in Washington, DC, in early December 1998, a set of principles emerged to cope with the problem of looted cultural property that had not yet been returned to rightful owners and, in most cases, remained unidentified in State and private collections around the world.

Let’s take a look at each one of them and see how much progress has been made since 1998, to the best of our knowledge and belief:

I. Art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted should be identified.

In order for Principle I to be respected, each of the nations that participated at the Washington Conference should have identified by now-13 years later—all art confiscated by the Nazis which has not yet been restituted. Is that the case?

As of this writing, there have been numerous commissions appointed in a number of nations to cope with the thorny issue of cultural property looted during the Second World War and the 13-year reign of the Nazis. However, the process of identification, in and of itself, is known as a Catch-22—it contains its own paradox. In order to identify looted art, one must understand the concept of looting. Looting, per se, can be as simple as forced removal of property at gun point and/or with the assistance of local law enforcement and judicial authorities working in tandem with the occupation authority. It can also be the result of so-called forced sales or duress sales. There, too, we run into problems because not every country that attended the Washington Conference even acknowledges that such sales occurred on its territory during those fateful dark years. Hence, after 13 years, there are no firm standards by which to move forward on identification of art “confiscated by the Nazis.” Moreover, this Principle does not make it explicit that such efforts should be exhaustive and definitive. Hence, each country can produce an ‘ad minima’ effort and feel that it has abided by Principle I. How diplomatic!

II. Relevant records and archives should be open and accessible to researchers, in accordance with the guidelines of the International Council on Archives.

Here, there has been some notable progress, albeit not extensive, but one must admit that the ability to conduct extensive research on plunder and on the looting ways of the Nazis and their Fascist allies has grown exponentially. The main hitch that impedes exhaustive research into Nazi/Fascist looting is the difficulty experienced by all researchers in gaining access to private archives and especially those developed by art dealers, art collectors, private and State-owned museums, and other cultural institutions. As noted in recent court cases in the United States, American museums have been loath to release all records that would shed a full historical light on transactions involving works being claimed for restitution. There, Principle II continues to be completely ineffectual.

III. Resources and personnel should be made available to facilitate the identification of all art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted.

Interestingly, Principle III embraces the notion that “all art” confiscated by the Nazis should be identified, as opposed to Principle I which just discusses “art.” Did the diplomats of the Washington Conference intend to maintain this inconsistency for any particular reason?

That notwithstanding, all endorsers to the Washington Principle have cried and lamented that they do not have the resources and personnel needed to identify “all art confiscated by the Nazis.” Who does? Santa Claus? Bill Gates? Until courage is demonstrated in this department to provide resources for this task to be completed, there will be no understanding of the magnitude of the problem of looted art in State-owned and private collections.

Do we know which collections are affected by the problem of looted art? Has anyone done a census of those institutions that might harbor stolen cultural property?

Principle III is a massive failure.

IV. In establishing that a work of art had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, consideration should be given to unavoidable gaps or ambiguities in the provenance in light of the passage of time and the circumstances of the Holocaust era.

Principle IV is the kiss of death for claimants. No one follows this Principle because provenance is everything. If there is a gap in the provenance, it is because the information is not available. If the information is not available, it is because access is being denied to the relevant information. This principle is most applicable and still useless for classes of objects where provenance—ownership history—is nigh-impossible to garner, and for objects removed from Jewish homes in small towns and cities where the Jewish community was matter-of-factly annihilated. Also, where records were burned, there is a very small likelihood of providing sufficient evidence to demonstrate the paternity or maternity of an object. Do courts accept the inevitability of provenance gaps? No. Do governments accept provenance gaps when assessing a restitution case? No. Do claimants even attempt to file claims for objects with no ownership history except their word of honor? Yes, and they always lose.

Hence, Principle IV is wishful thinking at best and utter diplomatic cynicism at worst.

V. Every effort should be made to publicize art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted in order to locate its pre-War owners or their heirs.

Except for lists released by various governments—Netherlands, Germany, France, Austria, Poland—and made available on official websites, there is total opacity in this area which means that Principle V has a lot to be desired in the way of execution. Transparency is the name of the game here and governments and institutions harboring these types of objects, do not practice transparency as a general rule of thumb because it implies that they become accountable. And accountability leads to all sorts of outcomes, including, but not limited to, restitution. God forbid!

In this regard, museums in Europe and North America will respond indignantly that they have complied with the Washington Principles and especially the aforementioned Principle V by launching their very own provenance research projects, the results of which are displayed on-line. A critical assessment of these efforts is worth several tomes and cannot be indulged in here. Suffice it to say that they are very uneven, and, once again, they are as good as the knowledge of curators and directors as to what constitutes art looting, plunder, forced sales, duress, and misappropriation during the Nazi years and/or at the hands of a government bent on confiscating property for political, racial, or other motives, in violation of customary property laws of private ownernship.  On a very positive note, smaller museums across the United States have produced impressive provenance checks of works that they have selected to fall under the general purview of "provenance research," however strange that might sound since all objects being accessioned in a collection should be the subject of "provenance research," looting or no looting.

A cynical assessment of the application of Principle V would dictate that museums have used it as a public relations ploy to show that they are “doing the right thing.” Indeed, no one has ever asked museums if they, in fact, have conducted an exhaustive search of their warehouses, basements, and other off-site storage areas and included items stored there into their provenance research projects. Most of the time, they confine their research to objects on display or selectively not on display. But, as a general rule, museums only exhibit 2 to 5 per cent of their holdings. Does provenance research extend to the 95 to 98 per cent that the average viewer does not see or know to exist? One wonders. We do not believe that this is the case. Hence, Principle V is a doubled-edged sword and the dull edge of the sword is on full display. However, persist and keep up the good work!  Every piece of information that is published on a work or object matters.

VI. Efforts should be made to establish a central registry of such information.

That registry does not exist and, as things stand currently, it will never exist. Specialists in art recovery and restitution dating back to the good old days of the immediate postwar Allied investigations of wartime looting, clamored repeatedly for such a registry to be compiled, made available, and continually updated. It simply never happened. Again, until someone with vision, idiosyncrasy and an unhealthy belief in ethics and historical truth steps up and meets this challenge, there will never be such a tool and we will continue to remain all the poorer and uninformed for it.

Principle VI is hereby decreed to be an unadulterated sham.

VII. Pre-War owners and their heirs should be encouraged to come forward and make known their claims to art that was confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted.

The heirs who can afford to come forward and make their claims known find themselves caught up in a complex jumble of legal restrictions and contradictions that, more often than not, lead them either to accept financial settlements rather than restitution, or to see their cases thrown out of court by assertive lawyers working for deep-pocketed museums, dealers, and collectors.

There is nothing good to be said about Principle VII except for the fact that there are no solid mechanisms put into place to allow all owners to come forward and make their claims known regardless of socio-economic background.  It is one thing to make their claims known, but the purpose of publicizing a claim is to obtain justice.

Principle VII is uninformed and useless until effective national and international public policies are enacted to systematize the processes inherent to this principle and protective of the rights of claimants to seek redress without penalties.

VIII. If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognizing this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case.

The language of Principle VIII is perverse.  What is a "just and fair solution"?  More often than not, museums and collectors, viz., current possessors of claimed objects invoke that phraseology.  There is nothing fair and just about the current legal state of affairs either in North America or in Europe when it comes to resolving cultural restitution claims.  Hence, its application follows the illogic of Principle VII by allowing for financial settlements, viz., non-restitution to be considered as an option for resolving outstanding claims from the Second World War and the Nazi/Fascist years. For instance, the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria, has abided fully with Principle VIII by seeking financial settlements to resolve outstanding claims against it as a result of the dubious and scandalous acquisition habits that characterized the creation of this collection in postwar Vienna.

Principle VIII should be overhauled.

IX. If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis, or their heirs, can not be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution.

Principle IX is diplomatic hogwash at its best. Let’s use the phraseology that best suits the Principle: heirless property. These two words put together offer a lethal mixture to Jewish organizations and postwar governments alike. No one knows what to do with heirless property. They don’t. How long has it been since the end of World War II? How long has it been since the Washington Principles were enacted? We are still at level one of the discussion.

Principle IX should simply be re-written completely and the words “heirless property” injected into a new paragraph that rethinks the fate of heirless property.

X. Commissions or other bodies established to identify art that was confiscated by the Nazis and to assist in addressing ownership issues should have a balanced membership.

Here, the word “balanced” brings a smile to a reasonable face. What is a “balanced” membership when it comes to investigating the postwar fate of Nazi-confiscated art, or art looted by the collaborators of Nazis in countries formerly occupied by or under influence of the Nazi government?

Many commissions were formed in the last decade to deal with the problem of looted art. Does that mean that its members clearly understood the intricacies of art looting, plunder, and the complexities inherent to the dispossession of individuals on the basis of their race, creed, belief, or status in society? Did the members have proven track in historical research, analysis, and interpretation of events directly relevant to acts of cultural plunder, forced sales, misappropriations, confiscations, and recycling of looted art in wartime and postwar markets? Until such a study is produced, one should reserve judgment on Principle X and wonder what a “balanced” membership is all about.

XI. Nations are encouraged to develop national processes to implement these principles, particularly as they relate to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership issues

Here, ironically, Principle XI embodies all that is elastic and malleable about the Washington Principles. One must argue that, all in all, Principle XI has been respected insofar as nations have favored alternative means of resolving complex wartime ownership disputes that go counter to the notion of restitution. So, bravo to all who signed off on this Principle because it effectively cancels out many of the aforementioned and permits the present state of affairs to continue against the rights of claimants to recover and allows countries and their cultural institutions to obfuscate their moral and ethical obligations in the eyes of civil society and the right of all peoples, especially the citizens that they dispossessed so conveniently and systematically, to the word “culture.”

Maillol bronze bathing beauty seeks rightful owner

It pays to read everything. As in any criminal investigative case, every stone must be turned over to look for any clue that might help solve a crime. Woe to those who read only what they wish to read and come up with flawed analyses as is so often the case in art restitution matters.

The forensic approach is the most effective, albeit laborious, method by which a plundered object can be reunited with its rightful owner. Or, at the very least, it is the best way to get closest to the historical truth.

Case in point: those myriad objects of art which remain in the custody of the French government under the odd label of "Musées Nationaux Récupération" (MNR). We are grateful to the French Ministry of Culture for having posted a number of these objects on their website under the label “Site Rose Valland-Musées Nationaux Récupération.” The key, however, is to interpret what you see and read.

Source: Site Rose Valland/MNR
And so it is that a bronze statuette entitled "Baigneuse" or "Badende/ Stehende nackte Frau" (description provided by the gentlemen from the ERR at the Jeu de Paume) by Aristide Maillol is not as lost as it may appear to be. Assigned the glib label “Rec 3 S ; R 3 ; RF 3250” the French Ministry of Culture has stripped this statue of its history. Simply put, it has no ownership history. However, its postwar life has been nothing short of glorious, having been displayed across three continents. Suffice it to say that a stolen cultural object was put on display courtesy of the French government in the following cities from 1950 to 1994: Toulouse, Valenciennes, Dijon, Besançon, Reims, Charleroi (Belgium), Ixelles, Tournai, Luxembourg, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Tokyo, Moscow, Leningrad/St-Petersburg, Shanghai, Antibes, Lyon, New York, Dallas, Saint-Tropez, and Mexico. Amazing how plundered objects travel…

The rightful owner of this statue is Marcel Kapferer. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) stole it from his apartment in Paris in February 1944 together with 30 other works and objects. The statuette was shipped on 5 May 1944 to Nikolsburg in the former Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia. The Germans transferred it with many other looted cultural assets to a depot in Austria, most likely at Altaussee where US forces found it. It arrived in Munich on 3 November 1945 and was labeled 13741/3 until its repatriation to France a year later.

Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv

If you follow the logic of the German documentation, this statuette, labeled KPR 9, was repatriated to France on 30 October 1946 from the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP). Hence, no need to worry, right? Wrong!

Source: ERR Project via NARA
According to Marcel Kapferer’s French restitution file, he recovered many other objects, including four Maillol bronze statuettes. On closer analysis, the French records do not concord with the German inventory of objects plundered from Kapferer’s home. Indeed, the French indicate KPR 10, KRP 12, KPR 19 and one statuette with no number (sans Nr.) as having been returned to Kapferer. The German records confirm that KPR 10 and KPR 12 are indeed Maillol statuettes. However, KPR 19 is a Ming period Chinese statuette of a priest. The numberless Maillol statuette is most likely KPR 11. In other words, it appears that the French authorities mislabeled one of the items that it returned to Kapferer by mistaking a Chinese Ming statuette for a piece by Aristide Maillol.

For those who remain skeptical that this item might have been restituted to Marcel Kapferer, a photographic comparison of the object in the MNR database with the photos taken by the ERR indicates that we might be dealing with the same object. You be the judge!

MCCP 13741/4
Source: MCCP Database via Bundesarchiv

24 June 2011

Fascists, SS, and plunder in wartime Italy

After the promulgation of the anti-Jewish laws of November 1938 by Mussolini’s Fascist government, Jews living in Italy became second- and third-class citizens overnight.

Eventually, the same pattern that afflicted their brethren in Germany and Austria befell the Jews of Italy, after living under the illusion that they were protected owing to their high levels of assimilation in Italian society. Social, cultural, economic, professional exclusions, evictions, and pauperization became the three pillars of their calvary in that crucial period prior to the German invasion of Italy in mid-1943.

Thinking that conversions might help them, close to 6000 Jews may have left the Jewish faith, at least on paper, in order to forestall further persecutions. Others chose to leave while some committed suicide.

It is worth remembering, in any discussion pertaining to economic loss and forced sales, that the reduction to second- and third-class citizenship is a direct invitation to wholesale persecution, harassment, and exploitation.

After the German conquest of Italy—let’s call it for what it is!—and the imposition of military rule anchored in racialist hatred, the SS set about importing to Italy the ingredients and mechanics of the Final Solution--location, identification, mass roundups, incarceration, concentration, and deportation.

This is where the most skeptical should revisit their cynicism about how Italy should not be treated like other European countries at the core or periphery of the Final Solution because of how nice Italians were to the Jewish populace. Granted, many Italians were scandalized by the rudeness and cruelty visited upon their Jewish neighbors and friends by the invaders from the North. But was it because they wished for an “Italian” solution to the Jewish “Problem” as was the expressed desire of the Vichy Fascists who regretted the heavy-handedness of the German occupiers in wartime France? As noted by German propaganda specialists in the RSHA, that was indeed the wish expressed by their Fascist allies, that they should be left to take care of their Jewish problem.

Nevertheless, opportunity has a tendency to knock only once. When thousands of Jews were forcibly removed from their homes in order to be incarcerated and deported, it should come as no surprise that a number of those homes were ‘liberated’ and ‘occupied’ by good Italians, Fascist ones at that.

Questions to answer:

  • What happened to those properties?
  • What happened to the contents of those ‘liberated’ homes? 
  • Did the postwar Italian government go after those responsible for the illegal seizures who were not acting on German orders?

23 June 2011

Up close and personal at the Final Solution in Rome

Among the mass of documents concerning the Final Solution which were made available to the general public are cable exchanges decoded by the Allies which took place between German SS officials in Rome and their superiors in Berlin. They recount the atmosphere in Rome in the days following the seizure of the city by German troops in September 1943. For anyone doing research on wartime plunder, these cables provide an important contextual matrix for understanding relations—often tense—between the SS and the Fascists, especially their police, the militia and the Carabinieri.

11 October 1943—Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the RSHA [Berlin] to Herbert Kappler, Head of he German Police and Security Services in Rome

“It is precisely the immediate and thorough eradication of the Jews in Italy which is the special interest of the present internal political situation and the general security in Italy. To postpone the expulsion of the Jews until the Carabinieri and the Italian Army officers have been removed can no more be considered than the idea mentioned of calling up the Jews in Italy for what would probably be very improductive labour under responsible direction by Italian authorities. The longer the delay, the more the Jews who are doubtless reckoning on evacuation measures have an opportunity by moving to the houses of pro-Jewish Italians of disappearing completely… Italy [has been] instructed … to proceed with the evacuation of the Jews without further delay.”

16 October 1943—From Kappler to Berlin

“Action against Jews started and finished today in accordance with a plan worked out as well as possible by the office. All available forces of the Sicherheitspolizei and the Ordnungspolizei employed. Participation of Italian police was not possible in view of unreliability in this respect, as only possible by individual arrests in quick succession inside the 26 action districts. To cordon off whole blocks of streets, in view both of Rome’s character as an open city and of the insufficient number of German police, 365 in all, not practicable. In spite of this 1259 persons were arrested in Jewish homes and taken to assembly camp(s) of the military school here in the course of the action which lasted from 0530 to 1400 hours. After the release of those of mixed blood, of foreigners including a Vatican citizen, of the families in mixed marriages including the Jewish partner, and of the Aryan servants and lodgers, there remain 1002 Jews to be detained. Transportation on Monday 18/10 at 0900. Escort by 30 men of the Ordnungspolizei. Attitude of Italian population was one of… passive resistance, which in a large number of individual cases has developed into active assistance. In one case, for example, the police were met at a house-door by a Fascist, with an identity document and in a black shirt, he having undoubtedly taken over the Jewish house only an hour before and alleged it to be his own… ..part of the population did not make an appearance during the action, but only the broad masses, who in individual cases even attempted to keep single policemen back from the Jews…”

17 October 1943—Amt III Referent of the RSHA [Rome] to Berlin

“Population excited and angry after the action against the Jews. Sympathy is the uppermost feeling among the lower classes, especially because women and children were taken… Growing indignation, especially against the German police. Fascists regret that the Jewish question has not been solved by Fascism…”

20 October 1943—Dr. Jur. Willhelm Harster, SS Brigadeführer to Berlin

“Transport of Jews from Rome left Rome on 18th at 0900 hours with transport No. X70469 and is traveling via Arnoldstein to Auschwitz…”

22 June 2011

How to profit from State-sanctioned plunder: the Entartete Kunst case

The Nazi government enacted on May 31, 1938, the ”Act on Confiscations of Degenerate Art“ (“Gesetz über Einziehung von Erzeugnissen entarteter Kunst“) in order to legitimize its domestic purge of all works of art not deemed suitable in the New National Socialist Aryan Germany. By 1942, according to an inventory compiled by the Reich Ministry for Cultural Enlightenment and Religion (Joseph Goebbels' purview) at least 16,000 so-called “degenerate”works of art were accounted for in museums and cultural institutions controlled by the Nazi government.

The Nazi government selected a handful of art dealers—Ferdinand Möller, Bernhard Böhmer, Karl Buchholz and Hildebrand Gurlitt—to do their bidding and get rid of these works on the art market—read, the international art market—in order to raise cash and cleanse the German cultural landscape once and for all.

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
Source: Wikipedia
Institutions like the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid have touted these gentlemen as “saviors” of Germany’s modernist art treasures, probably because the Museum owns a number of German Expressionist works that were "saved" by Gurlitt and Buchholz. Interesting. A rare instance where thieves and their acolytes are treated as heroes. Obviously, there’s room for everyone in the pantheon of Aat.

As one can readily imagine, the Nazi-ordered global recycling of "degenerate" art was the biggest cultural fire sale orchestrated by any standing government, legitimate or other, for which there could only be one word—opportunity! And, indeed, opportunity struck high throughout the ensuing decades, even after the fall of the Third Reich in early May 1945.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Source: The Art Story
Fast forward to 1964—an unusual year in the international auction market because a large number of these ‘degenerate’ works are put up for sale and snatched up by private collectors and museums, including American institutions. This is not to say that American museums did not seize earlier opportunities to absorb at prices not even fit for a flea market, priceless works of art by 19th and 20th century masters. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) under the enlightened leadership of Alfred Barr cashed in on various spectacular sales of ‘degenerate’ works such as the 1939 Lucerne, Switzerland, sale at Theodore Fischer’s gallery, and many subsequent transactions through third parties which allowed Barr to absorb an untold number of those works into the collections of MOMA.

In 1964, two works by Wassily Kandinsky come up for sale at Sotheby’s London—“Zweierlei Rot” which Dr. Gurlitt had ‘acquired’ for not even 100 dollars and “Ruhe” which was handled by Moeller. Both works hailed from the Berlin Nationalgalerie. “Zweierlei Rot” ended up in a private collection, giving the previous owner a handsome profit, while “Ruhe” was picked up by the Guggenheim Foundation together with dozens of other works by Kandinsky, an event that earned a small outcry in the German-language press.

While the Allied powers had denounced all transactions and laws entered into and decreed by the Nazi government between 1933 and 1945 to be null and void, thus illegal, the Allied Control Council (ACC) which ruled over the zones of occupation in Germany decreed by 1948 that the purging of German State cultural institutions had constitued a legitimate State-sanctioned act. One has to scratch one’s head in wonder at this ruling, justified by the Council by the fact that the Nazi government had not engaged in an overt act of discriminatory policy. Or could it be that, in order to avoid a wholesale purge and overhaul of the art market, it was best to let bygones be bygones? After all, if the ACC had declared the Nazi war against “degenerate” art to be illegal and consistent with its racial, anti-Semitic, xenophobic ideology, the acquisition of more than 16,000 works of art by institutions and individuals worldwide would have been subject to a massive “recall” and German state institutions placed in the awkward position of having to reclaim what they had cleansed, willingly or unwillingly.

The winners? 

According to museums and art world denizens, the general public is the winner. In the view of those who strive for ethical behavior in the global art market, there can be only one winner―the art market.

20 June 2011

The Leopold Museum strategy regarding Nazi art claims

The Leopold Museum in Vienna has just settled another looted art case with the family of a former Czech citizen from Brno, Moriz Eisler.

Several points stand out in the way in which the story was reported by Catherine Hickley for Bloomerg News.
  1. the Leopold Museum presumes that the works in its collection were acquired in good faith. That stance alone is extraordinary in view of the checkered history of its late founder, Dr. Rudolpf Leopold, who amassed a collection of works by Schiele that had once belonged to Jewish families. And he, like anyone else, was well aware of what had happened to those families.

    Good faith usually means that the acquirer of the work of art did not ask questions and did not really worry about the origin of the art object that he or she was purchasing.  In most cases, good faith rested on willful ignorance, writ large, ignorance of history, ignorance of the past, ignorance of one's environment, ignorance of the fact that twelve years of Nazi rule, a Holocaust, and a global war, occurred which might have disrupted the normal chains of ownership and cost the lives of the owners of the works being acquired "in good faith."

    As the 1960s saying goes, "ignorance is bliss."

  2. Since Dr. Leopold’s death last year, his son, Diethard Leopold, pledged to settle all outstanding claims against the Leopold Museum pertaining to looted art from the Holocaust era. Although he is making good on his pledge, settling is not restituting. Moreover, the strategy of settlement is predicated on his argument that the Museum holds art acquired in good faith. Had it not been purchased in good faith, the legal strategy might be a bit different or, at least, more exacting on the Museum. There is nothing new in waving money at claimants, especially when the alternative, seeking restitution, can become very costly due to the refusal of cultural institutions like the Leopold Museum to even consider restitution as a plausible means of "doing the right thing." Look at how long it took to settle the “Walli’ case.
If the Leopold family’s settlement strategy is a harbinger of things to come, few works of art will be restituted to their rightful owners.

The question of the day is:

Does the offer of a financial settlement carry within it the denial of restitution?

"Protestaktion vor dem Leopold Museum: 'Restituieren!'",  22 Jun 2011
Source: Der Standard
"Protestaktion vor dem Leopold Museum: 'Restituieren!'", 22 Jun 2011
Source: Der Standard
"Protestaktion vor dem Leopold Museum: 'Restituieren!'", 22 Jun 2011
Source: Der Standard
"Protestaktion vor dem Leopold Museum: 'Restitueren!'", 22 Jun 2011
Source: Der Standard

18 June 2011

MNR (Musées Nationaux Récupération) Notes—R 6 P « Femme au turban, » by Marie Laurencin

R 6 P
Source: Ministère de la culture - Musées Nationaux Récupération
Research always begets more research. It’s a bottomless, endless process. One has to be very strong to say: “Stop!”

Case in point: R 6 P of the MNR series at the French Ministry of Culture, the series that contains those works and objets d’art in the custody of the French government until someone comes by and claims them. Meanwhile, they have been incorporated into France’s State-run collections. Not a bad deal.

R 6 P is actually a painting by Marie Laurencin, which she completed in 1941. It’s called “Femme au turban”. Other documents indicate that it is “Jeune fille au turban” or a “Tête de jeune fille.” The young woman does indeed wear a turban and also a string of rather large pearls.

The painting is currently on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

R 6 P
Source: MCCP Database via Bundesarchiv
For anyone interested in delving deeper into the sordid past of these MNRs, here is some advice. When you read that the “Commission de choix des oeuvres d’art” selected the item on 10 December 1949,” this is what it means: a commission was established by the National Museum Administration of France (Direction des Musées Nationaux) to ferret out works and objets d’art in the Allied zones of occupation of Germany and Austria which could be construed as having been removed from France between June 1940 and the summer and fall of 1944. The word “choix” is critical because it entails selection. Selection for whom? Well, selection for French museums, that’s for whom. We are not discussing repatriation for the sake of restitution. The “Commission de choix” is only interested in picking out items which are “French” so that they can be considered for inclusion in French State collections. Is there a recognizable owner to whom the object could be returned? Apparently, that does not enter into the discussion.

The other item that is of note is a number. In this case the number is 45989. It is referred to as a German number from Munich. Or put more elegantly, it is a number assigned to the object by the people working at the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP) between 1945 and 1950, the main facility in the US zone of occupation in Germany where looted cultural property was sifted, re-organized, examined, and ultimately repatriated to countries from where they had been removed so as to facilitate their restitution. In the case of Marie Laurencin’s “Femme au turban,” the MCCP number coincides with an item matching this painting which entered the MCCP on 13 January 1948.

The MCCP descriptive index card gives very little information as to how the object crossed into the Reich in the first place. We know only of a Mr. Brandl who was forced to bring it to the MCCP “for examination.” There is also an indication that the item had been stored at a depot in Laufen.

The details provided by the French government for R 6 P omit any reference to this Mr. Brandl nor do they seem too concerned as to how the object left France.

R 6 P
Source: MCCP Database via Bundesarchiv
A search on Brandl in the MCCP database reveals that this Mr. Brandl brought to the Collecting Point “for examination” 94 items. One of the Brandl cards relates to a painting by Corot which was confiscated in France by SS-Mann Brandl, a detail that was absent from all other cards where Brandl’s name was mentioned. Not only that but we also find out that there is a Capt. Doubinsky associated with Brandl’s name. Capt. Doubinsky was the deputy of Rose Valland in the French zone of occupation at French military headquarters in Baden-Baden. Hence, after some basic poking around, we do find out some additional useful details about the holder of the cultural objects, including the Marie Laurencin painting. An enterprising uniformed SS soldier who was interrogated by Rose Valland’s deputy, Captain Doubinsky. And yet, we still do not know if these 94 objects, including the Marie Laurencin, were owned by one or more individuals. A clue to that effect is given to us by another card associated with Brandl. Munich Card No. 48804 pertains to a work by an artist named Béatrice How. The purported owner of the piece prior to SS Mann Brandl’s act of confiscation was “Mme. Veuve Lucien Raphael” in Paris. A cursory check tells us that there was a man by the name of Lucien Raphael who was a banker and who died in Paris in July 1943. Of course, there were probably a great many men named Lucien Raphael in Paris, but then again, could this be the same one? At the very least, this item—MCCP 48804—is associated with a previous owner.

Tentative conclusion:

R 6 P was seized or purchased—but most likely seized—by an SS Mann named Brandl at some point before the Germans abandoned Paris to its insurgents, its citizens, and liberating forces led in part by Général Leclerc. SS Mann Brandl also brought home to Germany 93 other items, which included more than a dozen Impressionist works, furniture, objets d’art, and sculptures.

Captain Doubinsky, Rose Valland’s assistant, interrogated him at some point in early 1949, following the summons issued to Brandl to bring his loot to the MCCP “for examination.”

At least one victim was associated with an item in Brandl’s possession.

We do not know how all of this unfolded. But we do know that the family of Lucien Raphael filed claims after the war, obtained restitution of items in 1946 and 1950. The correspondence between Lucien Raphael’s son, Claude, and Rose Valland reveals that many items were still not returned in 1960.

Further research would have to include:
  1. the interrogation of SS Mann Brandl by Captain Doubinsky which might be located in the so-called Baden-Baden archival records of the Rose Valland files at the French ministry of foreign Affairs at the Courneuve, north of Paris.
  2. the restitution files of Veuve Lucien Raphael in the Commission de récupération artistique (CRA) and the restitution files at the Office des Biens et Intérêts Privés (OBIP). All of these can be found at the Courneuve archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Postscript: the fact that Marie Laurencin painted the “Jeune fille au turban” in 1941 is worth noting. She lived the war years in Paris, unmolested.  Although her apartment was requisitioned in spring of 1944, so were many others in the late stages of the occupation of Paris.  Some of her closest friends, including Flora Groult and René Gimpel, professed that she held anti-Semitic views. Although this has nothing to do with the aforementioned issue of R 6 P in the MNR series, it is indicative of the fact that the dominant color of plunder in wartime France is a deep shade of grey, neither black nor white.

Your forced sale is not my forced sale—denial of restitution in Ghent, Belgium

Source: Wikipedia
Ghent is a proud historical Flemish city in Belgium. It touts as one of its outstanding accomplishments to be the 7th most desirable city in the world according to “Lonely Planet.” It is a city where people can still meet people, according to Lieven Decaluwe, vice president of the “Collège des échevins” of the city of Ghent/ Gand and the échevin responsible for questions of culture, tourism and festivities. The “Collège des échevins” is the equivalent of a city council run by the city mayor [bourgmestre]. Each échevin is responsible for a particular sector of activity.

This proud city also touts an impressive museum of fine arts, the “Musée des Beaux-arts de Gand.” In it, one can find everything from Old Masters to modernists, including Expressionist painters like Oskar Kokoschka. It so happens that one painting by Kokoschka, “Portrait de Ludwig Adler,” acquired by the Museum in 1988 (or 1989 depending on which article you read) has been the subject of a claim for restitution by the heirs of the late German banker, Viktor von Klemperer, since early 2009, when the von Klemperer family’s attorney, Sabine Rudolph, notified the city council of Gand that the painting had been the subject of a forced sale in 1937 or 1938 in Nazi Germany and should be returned to its rightful owners. According to Sabine Rudolph, all transactions during that period were considered to be forced sales. She also declared that German law assumes that Jews were forced to sell their belongings during the Nazi era.

The “Collège des échevins de Gand” appointed a commission to investigate the von Klemperer claim. The head of the commission was the former chairperson of the « Commission d’étude et de la Commission de dédommagement de la communauté juive de Belgique », the main commission established by the Belgian government in 1997-1999 to assess the damage done to Jews living in Belgium during the German occupation and to articulate the foundations of a compensation law that was eventually passed in 2002. Interestingly enough, the Commission excluded thefts, misappropriations, and forced sales of cultural assets, from its mandate, arguing, strangely enough, that those assets had been transferred directly to Germany and should therefore not be taken into account.

One can therefore conclude that the former chairperson of the « Commission d’étude et de la Commission de dédommagement de la communauté juive de Belgique » was not competent to oversee such an inquiry and therefore the entire exercise conducted by the municipality of Ghent has been nothing short of a historical farce dressed up as an objective inquiry into a historical misdeed that occurred in another country whose policies wrecked Belgium and its Jewish population for close to five long years.

Predictably enough, the “Collège des Echevins de Gand”, speaking on behalf of the “Musée des beaux-arts de Gand," denied restitution to the heirs of the late German banker, Viktor von Klemperer, on the grounds that his painting by Oskar Kokoschka, “Portrait de Ludwig Adler,” had not been the subject of a forced sale in Nazi Germany at some point between 1937 and 1938, shortly before he fled to Africa with his family.

The reasons that justify such an inane ruling rested partly on an allegation that the late Viktor von Klemperer was interested in selling the work as early as 1937, and that his wife might not even have liked the painting in the first place. This is the first time that personal taste has been invoked as a factor in the assessment of a claim for restitution.

It is a sad day both for the Jews of Belgium, for the Belgian government (which may or may not exist), and for the international community, to see such provincialism and arrogance prevail in a petition for historical justice associated with acts of genocide and plunder.

The commission investigating the forced sale was incompetent and did not have the requisite skills and background to understand the scope, breadth, and complexity of the event that forced von Klemperer to shed his cultural assets in Nazi Germany.

Perhaps the Belgian authorities should ask themselves why they have one of the worst track records in Europe when it comes to the restitution of art stolen during the German occupation with the complicity and collaboration of its own citizens.

16 June 2011

The five Schiele drawings of Karl Maylander

The good news is that an Austrian Commission set up to investigate the provenance of the collection--mostly of works by Schiele--owned by the late Dr. Rudolf Leopold, has recommended to the Ministry of Culture that the Albertina Museum should return to the heirs of Karl Maylander five works on paper in its collection. The titles of these works are: "Girl with Sunglasses," "Portrait of Olga Gallus," "Proletarian Children," "Portrait of Heinrich Benesch," and "Portrait of a boy."

The fact that the recommendation to restitute was made in the first place is excellent. That is what the job of the Commission is—to advise the Minister of Culture on restitution matters pertaining to works and objets d'art plundered from Jewish owners after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria on March 10, 1938.

If one consults the Austrian press, articles in papers like Der Standard outline a more complex story regarding the fate of these looted works on paper and of their owner than what one could glean from the English-language press.

First of all, we find out that Karl Maylander did not just get sent to a “Polish labor camp”. He was deported from Vienna to the ghetto of Lodz or Litzmannstadt, a major recipient of Jewish deportees from the Greater German Reich.  Further research indicates that Maylander was on Transport No. 8 leaving Vienna "nach dem Osten" on October 23, 1941, with many of his Jewish peers  In case anyone is curious about his fate, the history of the Lodz Ghetto has been extensively researched and there is a wealth of information, both archival and secondary, which is easily accessible. Chances are that Maylander perished in the ghetto or during one of the exterminationist “Aktions” undertaken against children and senior citizens.

Second of all, one article in Der Standard reveals the name of the postwar purchaser of the works—Etelka Hofman, someone who knew Maylander well. The article makes it clear, however, that she was not entitled to the works as a rightful heir. Hence, she acquired looted cultural property. As with so many people who were deported from Austria, Maylander died intestate which meant that his belongings were taken over by an Austrian bankruptcy court and his assets sold. Of course, the legal system being what it is, the fact that someone disappears intestate owing to his or her persecution does not impinge in any way on the administration of so-called heirless property in anti-Jewish Austria. This method of dissipating Jewish-owned assets enabled many individuals to acquire them at bargain-basement rates, including significant decorative objects and works of art.

The decision to recommend restitution in no way binds the Minister of Culture or the Albertina Museum to “do the right thing.” Hence, this is just the beginning of a potentially lengthy process, not its denouement.

Proletarier Kinder
Source: Art-Prints-On-Demand
Mädchen mit Sonnenbrillen, 1910
Source: Wikipedia
Blindis Olga Gallus
Source: Wikipedia
Portrait of Heinrich Benesch
Source: Oil-Paintings
Portrait of a Boy
Source: Flickr via mjdezo

Revisiting the landscape of plunder

No serious discussion on the problem of cultural plunder dating back to the Nazi/Fascist era, the Second World War, and the Holocaust, can even begin without a blunt assessment of its scope and breadth.

In other words, any serious research into cultural plunder must take into account the following:
  1. scale of cultural plunder:

    19 countries in Europe were directly affected by the policies of the Nazi government and its Fascist allies.  Those 19 nations were subject to different levels of cultural plunder either under direct German military administration or at the hands of pro-Nazi anti-Semitic governments. Net losses must be assessed as greater than 10 million objects deemed to be of some cultural value.
  2. the beneficiaries of cultural plunder:

    The beneficiaries of cultural plunder included, but were not necessarily limited to, the following:

    — auction houses
    — galleries
    — state museums and collections
    — private collectors, regardless of rank or stature in Nazi or Fascist organs of power
  3. the facilitators of illegal transfers of ownership of plundered cultural assets included, but were not limited to:

    — members of the legal profession—notaires, attorneys, judges, magistrates
    — members of the government—civil servants and party functionaries in national ministries, regional prefectures, local governments and administrations
    — members of the financial services profession—accountants, finance inspectors, brokers, appraisers, insurance assessors
    — members of the law enforcement community—policemen and police officers, agents specialized in anti-Jewish actions (inspectors, political police, judicial police, customs officers, etc…)
    — members of the art trade—antiquarians, gallery owners, museum curators and directors, art historians, auction house appraisers and experts, brokers, merchants, and dealers
  4. the following types of individuals facilitated the international recycling of plundered cultural assets:

    — consular officers, charges d’affaires, and ambassadors of nations accredited in territories under Nazi and Fascist administration, military and/or civilian.
    — corporate executives, importers, exporters, trade specialists, bankers, investment specialists, stockbrokers, currency and precious metals brokers, either native or foreign.
    — intelligence agents and officers, either native or foreign
    — criminal elements involved in racketeering, smuggling, contraband, robbery, kidnapping, and assassinations, working closely with law enforcement organizations and paramilitary formations
  5. plundered cultural assets were stored in many different locations, including, but not limited to, the following:

    — state-run depots, storehouses, and warehouses (castles, manors, state-owned or leased buildings, military bases and facilities)
    — private residences and businesses
    — safes and vaults
    — cultural edifices

14 June 2011

A bed in which Marie-Antoinette might have slept

In the early days of November 1952, a man walked into the showrooms of Seligmann & Cie., located at 23, Place Vendôme, in Paris. His name was Mr. Veil-Picard, heir to a very substantial collection of decorative objects and other cultural assets left behind by his father and which had been looted from their Paris apartment in spring of 1944 by elements of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). As luck would have it, most of the crates containing Veil-Picard property (marked “WP”) were located in Germany and Austria and returned to France to be restituted to the Veil-Picard family.
WP 2003
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv

One of the recovered items was a bed frame, the so-called “Marie-Antoinette” bed frame. It is one of those historical oddities that is more likely to turn into a conversation piece. Legend has it that this bed frame was one of many designed to accommodate the royal body of the “Austrian Queen” wherever she might end up—castle, manor, stately apartments. No matter, as long as there was a bed specifically designed to suit her particular tastes.

According to the ERR scholars of the Jeu de Paume, the bed frame, labeled WP 2003, actually hailed from the “Palais de Versailles” and was the masterful handiwork of Georges Jacob (1739-1814). However, the description on Veil-Picard’s own inventory is humbler; it simply refers to a Louis XVI bed with designs by Philippe de la Salle. Like many stolen cultural items from across Europe, the bed ended up at Lager Peter (Alt-Aussee), the main cultural plunder depot lodged in the Austrian mountains, and returned directly to France without going through Munich.
WP 2003
Source: ERR Project via NARA
WP 2003
Source: ERR Project via NARA
Veil-Picard recovered the item on April 16, 1946.

Six years later, Veil-Picard offered the ornately-decorated bed frame for sale to François-Gérard Seligmann, general manager of Seligmann & Cie. in Paris, whose own firm, co-owned in a very complex arrangement by his brothers and cousins in Paris and New York, had been completely fleeced during the German occupation of France, some say as payback for the Seligmann family's alleged mishandling of Hermann Goering on one of his pre-invasion shopping sprees in Paris.

Seligmann estimated the bed frame to be worth around four million francs (not more than 20,000 US dollars, 1952 value).

Although he did not really believe that the bed had been slept in by or been designed for Marie-Antoinette, Seligmann realized, however, that, as is so often the case, it made for a good story which could only enhance the value of an item that would otherwise be hard to sell, no matter how you looked at it.

All this to say that many claimants who recovered their stolen property sold it in the years that followed their restitution, some because they needed the income, others because the items no longer interested them, and for most, it was a stark reminder of a period that they just as soon would want to forget. For those who firmly believe that venality is the prime motive underlying a claimant's desire to sell restituted property, think again. And, to be frank, once the rightful owner recovers his or her property, its ultimate fate should not be anyone's concern except the owner's.

13 June 2011

Chabad vs. Russia

The legal battle pitting the Lubavitch movement against the Russian government has reached new heights following two developments:
  1. a judgment issued on August 6, 2010, by Federal Judge Royce Lamberth in the United States in favor of the Chabad Lubavitch movement’s quest for restitution of the so-called “Schneerson Library” and related archives which can be found in several institutions in Russia;
  2. the over-reaction by the Russian government to cancel loans of cultural assets to American museums and cultural institutions out of a perceived fear that those assets would be subject to seizure in order to force the Russian government to relent on its refusal to return the Schneerson library and archives to the Lubavitch movement.
The pitbull, scorched-earth approach taken by both sides in this struggle for recovery does not augur well for future attempts to negotiate the restitution of cultural assets currently located in the former Soviet Union. It also makes one wonder whether or not an all-or-nothing strategy is the best policy to pursue.

In the world that we strive to build, there would be no issues underlying the restitution of cultural artifacts forcibly removed from individuals and groups because of their racial, religious, political, ethnic, or other identities and beliefs. For that world to exist, all countries have to come to grips with the fact that they control significant quantities of cultural artifacts and assets which do not belong to them and that need to be returned to their rightful owners.

In reality, we live in a world where governments are either loath to admit that they hold such vast amounts of illicitly-obtained cultural assets or they prefer to view these misappropriated cultural assets as “cultural patrimony,” a rather primitive approach more attuned to the conquering ways of ancient societies than to individuals who pride themselves on being civilized and ethically-grounded.

Moreover, there is a propensity in the United States to litigate everything to death which can be viewed as an outright provocation by non-American entities. However, the idea that cultural assets can be held hostage in a transnational game of arm-wrestling with no end in sight, is neither appealing nor inspiring. And for that reason, both sides can be chided for outdoing the other in dogmatic, self-righteous indignation.

Most of us ignore the back-channel discussions, the unstated aims and motivations of all parties involved in this unseemly struggle for control over intellectual, cultural, and religious artifacts that are the rightful property of the Lubavitch movement. But, for any resolution to occur, the parties at war with one another have to engage in a very serious reality check. If we are to continue to interact as civilized human beings, it is time, therefore, to behave and grow up and discuss what is really at stake here. It is not the fact that the Lubavitch movement wants its archives back, an archive that, frankly, most people in the Russian Federation do not give two beans about. It’s all about principle, the principle that someone, anyone, would have the audacity to ask for the return of property that was once theirs, but was forcibly taken, removed, transferred, and amalgamated into another culture’s “patrimony” without its consent.

Consent is the key here. If there is no consent, we enter the realm of illegality. The Russian government cannot sensibly argue that its identity is wrapped up around the Lubavitch movement’s archives and library. Neither should we go to war over them.

An opportunity exists here to show the world how to avoid escalating the restitution of cultural assets to the level of an international incident between nations and cultures. All parties need to think seriously about what they are willing to settle for in order to bring about an acceptable resolution to this crisis. In other words, let’s speak plainly: it may very well be that nothing good will come of this pitch battle if there is not a negotiation. Both parties have to stop their respective chest-thumping. In sum, let’s talk.

To the Russians: what is it that you really want? Quid pro quo? Something in exchange? If so, what? Or, put another way, what would it cost you really, honestly, to effect the return of the Schneerson Library and the archives of the Lubavitch movement?

To the Lubavitch movement: you’ve lived this long without those papers and books. If the deal is all or nothing, you might well end up with nothing. What would you be willing to settle for in order for you to retrieve something as opposed to nothing, even if we all know that the ideal solution is to obtain full restitution.

Here, the Italian government comes to mind. Its concept of cultural patrimony has evolved to the point where it considers items stolen from Jews during the Second World War as part of its ‘patrimony’ just like antiquities that have been excavated from Italian soil. Therefore, the return of such property is doomed because of the label of ‘cultural patrimony.’ When countries hide behind that label, nothing is possible.

To the Russians: if you consider the Schneerson archives and books as part of your “cultural patrimony”, including those that the Nazis stole and you recovered, aren’t you behaving as shamefully as the Italian government?

To the Lubavitch movement: the Italian government negotiated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other cultural institutions in the United States for the return of its antiquities that had been illegally removed from Italian soil to adorn their collections. There was a moment where scorched earth seemed to be on the agenda, but the crafty negotiating skills of certain American museum directors, blended with the Italian government’s desire to obtain the safe return of its treasured objects, led to extraordinary settlements that provided American museums with access to more antiquities, exclusive rights to future exhibits and displays of Italian antiquities, and so forth.

To both parties: think outside the box and see if, however bizarre and unprincipled the agreements were between Italy and American museums over their antiquities, whether or not you might find similar answers to your current stalemate which is not helping anyone at all.

11 June 2011

Looted paintings in the State Museum of Smolensk

Картинная галерея, Смоленск
Source: Smolensk Travel
In 2005, a museum in Smolensk, in cooperation with the German Embassy in Moscow, organized an exhibit of German paintings from the 17th century to the early part of the 20th century. Most of the paintings came from the permanent collection of the Smolensk Museum. Of the paintings that were exhibited, more than a dozen came from a single family—Stolberg-Wernigerode—whose estate in Radenz (present-day Borzeciczki), in western Poland near Poznan, had been plundered, first by the Nazis, then by Soviet troops.

The German Embassy in Moscow made contact with the Stolberg-Wernigerode heirs seeking to establish the correct provenance and ownership of the paintings being exhibited in Smolensk. Furthermore, the curatorial staff of the Smolensk Museum even invited the Stolberg-Wernigerode family to come and visit the museum and view the paintings. And so they did.

As they tell the story, the visit took place in November 2005 following a five-hour train ride from Moscow to Smolensk and was nothing short of surrealistic. The following is excerpted from a master’s thesis entitled “Fateful Encounter in Smolensk” submitted on December 10, 2010 by Marie Stolberg as partial fulfillment of a Master’s Degree in International Art Crime Studies sponsored by ARCA—Association for Research into Crimes against Art:
“For our visit they had been taken out of the depot and put up on easels in an extra room. There they were, so many years after they had gone missing, as if nothing had ever happened. Here was the beloved grandmother with the bracelet she gave to her granddaughter who wears it still; the grandfather, great‐grandparents and landscapes of Wernigerode. The paintings had all been restored and they were in excellent condition. It was moment of great emotion. We sat down for an intensive exchange of information with the curators and the director. They were keen to hear about the family and to see the photo album with the paintings hanging on the walls. The curator, Nadeshda Wolossenkowa, said that the crates with the collection from Krotoschinskij
 in Poland had arrived in the summer of 1945. She mentioned, rather incidentally, that a countless amount of further cultural objects (none of which had ever been unpacked, inventoried or even looked at), were still stored in the depots. The conversation was intriguing. At the end of the day we carefully touched on the subject of restitution. I remember Nadeshda’s answer was very polite if not a little vague. She had expected the question and said that one way could possibly be in exchange for cultural objects from Smolensk which had been looted by the Nazis and removed from Russia. She presented us with two catalogues published by the museum and listing works of art missing from their collection. At the same time she stressed that the matter of restitution was not in her hands and only to be decided by the ministry.”
And therein lies the rub. How do claimants recover anything from the former Soviet Union, despite having sufficient proof that the works were rightfully theirs?

Following various official exchanges with the Russian Ministry of Culture, it became apparent that there would not be any consideration of a restitution until the Stolberg-Wernigerode family produced official papers and documentation indicating that the paintings rightfully belonged to them. A difficult task considering the fact that over one hundred years had elapsed since the paintings had entered the family’s estate and a major European conflagration had been responsible for virtually wiping out all traces of historical evidence of individual and collective history, first at the hands of the Germans, then at the hands of the Soviets. Twice plundered.

In some measure, the behavior of the Russian Ministry of Culture closely mirrors that of most governments and cultural institutions faced with such claims—the desire to maintain their current ownership of objects which fell into their hands by circumstances associated with war, plunder, and genocide.

The solution proffered by the curator of the Smolensk Museum—to exchange the works for items plundered by the Germans from their museum by elements of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR)—has become a preferred strategy of the Russian government. Nothing is unilateral. There has to be a quid pro quo, regardless of the validity of the claim submitted by the despoiled party.

09 June 2011

Uniform Law Commission plan to issue art ownership dispute standards may be over

On April 25, 2011, we announced an initiative spearheaded by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) aimed at coming up with a series of legal standards that could be used across the United States in order to resolve art ownership disputes arising out of claims filed by Holocaust survivors or their heirs for the return of their looted cultural assets.

A number of individuals, entities, and organizations supplied comments to the ULC in reaction to its proposal for producing these standards. See in particular the contribution of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) in the form of an open letter addressed to the ULC.

The “stakeholders”, namely, claimants, auction houses, museums, art dealers and collectors and law enforcement, and attorneys representing all sides of these disputes, voiced an almost unanimous condemnation and critique of the standards proposed by the Study Committee of the ULC.

As a result of this highly negative reaction, the Study Committee is recommending that the ULC should not “undertake the drafting of a uniform act on private rights of action to recover stolen cultural or artistic property and illegally exported artifacts”. Although the proposed effort to issue standards regulating art ownership disputes evenhandedly across the United States might have well-intentioned, the end result would have set back the clock for all those seeking even a minimal chance of having their case heard in a court of law, absent, of course, any public policy that the Congress might consider enacting in this regard. Until such time, it is best to leave things as they are, however imperfect and lopsided the current legal system is.

“A Harvest Scene (Heuernte)” by Philip Wouwerman

It required the death at the age of 96 on March 19, 2007, of a German art historian turned notorious Nazi plunderer and war criminal, Bruno Lohse, former operational chief of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Paris and deputy commander of the Dienststelle Westen in German-occupied Paris to discover a painting looted by Nazi agents in the summer of 1940 from the home of the late Edmond de Rothschild.

R 348
Source: ERR Project via NARA
R 348
Source: ERR Project via NARA

"A Harvest Scene (Heuernte)", Philip Wouwerman
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
The painting in question, “A Harvest Scene (Heuernte)” by Philip Wouwerman, was labeled as R 348 by the ERR staff at the Jeu de Paume and subsequently shipped to the Reich to be incorporated into the collection of Hermann Goering.

At some point before the end of the Second World War, Bruno Lohse was able to gain control of the painting either by subterfuge or with the consent of Goering. Nevertheless, it remained in his custody until his death, when it was found in a safe in a Zurich bank.

A French journalist, Philippe Sprang, first reported the story of the looted Wouwerman painting in December 2010. In his piece, he reported how the French Rothschilds had ignored the fact that the painting had resurfaced and was available for them to claim it. The family, once apprised of the existence of the painting, preferred to work through the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs rather than contact the German authorities directly. However, since that time, we have learned that, apparently, the rightful heir is unwilling or reluctant to press for the restitution of this work or is simply uninterested.

The painting is now awaiting its fate at the hands of German judicial authorities. If the rightful owner refuses to claim it as his property which was looted from his family during the Nazi occupation of France, this stolen work of art will be handed over to a relative of the plunderer, Bruno Lohse, and justice will not have been served. A sad and unfortunate end to a story that can still end well with the claimant recovering what is rightfully his.

06 June 2011

Plaidoyer pour les artistes et intellectuels juifs disparus

Palais des Études, École Nationale Superieur des Beaux-Arts, Paris
Source: Wikipedia
Il faut se poser la question, même s’il est injuste de la poser : enfin de compte, les juifs étrangers, mal nourris, mal logés, mal élevés, de l’Ecole de Paris et des autres écoles de création artistique à travers l’Europe, ces juifs-là, qui gênaient les bien-pensants, purement et simplement, ont-ils été abandonnés à leur propre sort, en raison de ce qu’ils représentaient ?

Difficile à dire. Mais on ne peut pas sombrer dans une martyrologie sentimentaliste en ce qui les concerne. On n’est pas enclin non plus à croire en la munificence de l’homme face au désastre ; les comportements crapuleux existent bel et bien. Nous sommes dans l’obligation de rectifier le tir et de dire ce qu’il en est, d’après les documents, de démystifier le comportement des marchands, des courtiers, et de tous ceux dans le monde de l’art qui savaient pertinemment bien que ‘ces messieurs’ étaient bel et bien leurs clients, que les objets dont ils disposaient provenaient de collections spoliées, un point, c’est tout. Si, par contre, on prend au pied de la lettre tous les mémoires d’après-guerre produits par ces mêmes marchands et collectionneurs, il n’y a plus rien à dire, tout le monde il est beau, tout le monde il est gentil. C’est dommage, beaucoup de gens ont été exterminés, pour rien, pour ce qu’ils étaient, et c’est bien malheureux, et on passe à autre chose. Glorifier les marchands et les collectionneurs dans un combat héroïque contre le Golgotha nazi, ça, non, il faut bien tirer un trait quelque part. Il faut que l’on tire et que l’on tire juste.

Par exemple, est-ce qu’on laisse Matisse tranquille ou non ? Que savait-il ? Pourquoi ne disait-il rien ? S’il existe des documents qui attestent de sa connaissance des rafles, des aryanisations, et des spoliations de ses propres œuvres—quelqu’un a dû lui dire ce qui se passait à Paris—quelles ont été ses réactions? Peut-être qu’il s’en balançait éperdument, lui aussi ? Un tableau, un dessin, ben, c’est un tableau, un dessin. Si je les perds, j’en refais d’autres. Il se peut que ceux qui se sentent les plus concernés par ces pertes sont les consommateurs de ses œuvres, ceux qui en profitent. Peut-être que les artistes sont indifférents au fait que leurs œuvres soient pillées. Mais, s’ils ne disent rien, que pouvons-nous dire ? Avons-nous le droit de nous prononcer sur la question ? Puisque l’on ne peut pas anticiper leur réaction, il faut au moins que l’on puisse créer un contexte, un cadre dans lequel se situe l’action. Pendant que Matisse peignait et dessinait à Nice, des centaines de collectionneurs d’origine juive se faisaient spolier, parmi les objets qu’ils ont perdus figuraient des œuvres créées par Matisse. Le régime auquel il a prêté son nom s’adonnait au pillage de ses œuvres. Purement et simplement. La même logique s’applique à Picasso, Braque, et d’autres artistes de renom, y compris le fasciste Vlaminck, les opportunistes comme Van Dongen, Derain, Dufy, et Dunoyer de Segonzac.

Il faut arriver à restituer aux artistes leurs parcours et leur persécution, de souligner les pertes physiques et intellectuelles, de rappeler à tous que les écrits des historiens continuent de passer sous silence l’anéantissement de toute une classe d’artistes et d’intellectuels, peut-être par ignorance, peut-être parce qu’ils pensent qu’en parlant des victimes de la déportation, ils se sont acquittés de toute responsabilité d’entrer dans les détails. Mais, cet oubli accidentel constitue en soi un déni inacceptable de la contribution de ces artistes et intellectuels juifs au patrimoine culturel et intellectuel non seulement de la France mais de l’Europe toute entière. Il faut le redire une fois pour toute : la libération des pays occupés par les Nazis fut une belle victoire, mais l’absence des retrouvailles aux terrasses des cafés qui avaient servi in extenso de salons et de salles à manger pour ces artistes en manque de tout, sauf d’inspiration et de cœur, résonne comme un écho dans un abîme dont la profondeur ne peut être mesurée.

Leur absence nous bouleverse et laisse un trou béant dans notre existence. C’est toute une mouvance artistique et intellectuelle qui a disparu de la planète. Et c’est une marque du succès du programme national-socialiste et de celui de ses alliés antisémites, bon ton bon goût. Oui, le goût a eu sa revanche, mais à quel prix !

A 1940 “fait divers” in Fascist Italy

Dateline 1940.

Two years have elapsed since the Fascist Government of Benito Mussolini enacted anti-Jewish laws, inspired by the infamous 1935 Nürnberg Laws in Nazi Germany and a forerunner of the Fall 1940 anti-Jewish edicts in Vichy France.

Although this arduous period of Italian history has not received the full treatment that it deserves, when compared to its neighbors to the North, Jews--and especially foreign-born Jews who had escaped to Italy--were transformed overnight into second-class citizens whose rights were being reduced to nil across the Italian boot.

And so it was that a Hungarian-born Jew, Vittorio Földes fu Martino, living in Vicenza, approached a Munich-born German hotel owner who managed a pensione in Fiume, to sell him a 15th century miniature signed L.C., executed in the style of Lukas Cranach, and which portrayed the head of Saint John.

The German owner of the pensione called upon a friend of his, Emil Starle (or Stark), who was then the director of a Dürer Museum in Nürnberg (Norimberga). Mr. Földes probably should not have trusted these two men, but when you are in desperate search of money to help you survive, your capacity to doubt the sincerity of others might be trumped by your need for resources with which to survive. In other words, Mr. Földes was ripe for a duress sale. He left the painting with the hotel owner from Munich.

He was told to come back the following day. When he did, there was no one to greet him and to provide him with the funds that he needed in exchange for his 15th century miniature painting. The two Germans had vanished.

Luckily, Mr. Földes survived the war and filed a claim in June 1945 with the Occupation Military Government in Germany (OMGUS), which forwarded his request to the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP). Not too surprisingly, the work was not found. However, he did encourage his American interlocutors to go knocking on the door of the Dürer Museum in Nürnberg and see if his portrait of Saint John had ended up there.

Although we do not know the outcome of this all too familiar story of theft, Mr. Földes is convinced that he was fleeced because he is a Jew who sought help in Fascist Italy.  One should wonder how many stories like Mr. Földes’ occurred in Italy between the enactment of the anti-Semitic legislation in 1938 and the invasion of Italy by Nazi Germany in 1943.

How much attention did postwar Italian authorities pay to these crimes which were not committed by German troops, or the SS, or the Gestapo, but by German citizens who felt that they could act in impunity on Italian soil under cover of the anti-Semitic laws?

Has anyone cared to ask?