01 November 2011

Confessions of an art looting “expert” (I)

I must apologize for not having contributed anything to this blog in over two months. The reason is simple: a generic failure to think that there was anything meaningful to write about after having hatched more than 110 pieces for you to peruse at your leisure.

Why expose myself in this way to perfect strangers? It’s the 21st century thing to do, I guess. But in my case, I feel the urge to ‘out’ my private self enough so that you know with whom you are dealing. Writer’s block has not been the issue these past few months; instead, I have been bruising my head time and time again against a philosophical rock—to wit, the rock of restitution of cultural assets looted during the Nazi/Fascist years and recycled over the past seven decades through private hands and State-controlled entities with no likelihood that these objects will ever be identified, located, recovered, and returned to their rightful owners.

Why bother? The “mission” to locate and restitute looted cultural assets stolen during the Nazi years is so thankless at times that it is even painful to muse over its future. Our past is indeed our prologue but our present might just be our future unless we do something radical to transform it from complacent indifference and lethargy into a dynamic machine fueled by ethics, transparency, search for truth, a truth, a historical truth, the truth about these thefts, about the deliberate misappropriation of millions of cultural objects from the hands and homes of tens of millions of people during twelve long years of oppression, persecution, ostracism, incarceration, exploitation, impoverishment, eviction, expropriation, and more often than not, physical liquidation.

Why bother? That is the question that I ask myself every day when I wake up from a frazzled sleep. There are databases to expand and complete, there are new files to read and analyze, from which information must be gleaned, synthesized and shared with others. There are students to educate, there are faculty members to enlighten out of their impoverished understanding of cultural plunder, the complexities of the illicit trade in looted art and the perplexing paradoxes inherent to the quest for restitution. There are government officials to shake out of their slumber who are too afraid to move their limbs in a forward motion to make some progress, any progress, even infinitesimal progress, just enough progress so that we can say that there is progress in the international arena, of course, where else. Because in the United States, just as an example, there is a continuing state of stasis that makes it so convenient for the so-called “experts” to do the strict minimum and claim that “alles gut”—all is well—that we are making progress, geostationary progress that is—this is true across the board whether it be in the art world writ large, or among well-connected art historians with deep ties in private museums and elite circles who have claimed to be such experts in “Nazi confiscations” and “restitution” and other well-established academics, pundits and political pinheads, bureaucrats of all stripes spanning all agencies and institutions—for the most part, they are well-meaning but fundamentally ignorant and passive, always living in fear of the people upstairs whose scythes might sweep their heads off their fragile shoulders as soon as they make some progress forward on issues which should simply be ignored. The exception is the Office of Holocaust Issues at the US Department of State under new leadership. Most importantly and urgently, there are the rightful owners, the heirs and descendents of the victims themselves who seek an accounting by way of restitution.

Worst of all, there are those specialized bureaucracies that are finely tuned to the cause of remembrance, memory and education about the Holocaust and which are outspokenly silent about the taboo, the unspeakable, unmentionable, untouchable, mystifying topic of cultural plunder. God forbid that any such institution might wish to put a timid foot in front of the other and venture into the dark abyss of Nazi confiscations, Aryanizations, forced sales, expropriations of property, and the recycling of Jewish-owned wealth into ‘Aryan” hands as the fundamental pre-requisites of the dehumanization of entire Jewish communities, the final step before mass annihilation. God forbid that anyone would want to share that thought with the general public. My goodness, where would we be? What would happen to us? Would the sky fall on our heads? Would anti-Semites come crawling out of the ground and scream bloody murder against the Jews? Not really. It’s a bit like the story of Henny Penny, the hen who was convinced that the sky was falling on her head. It’s all in her head. It’s all in their minds. But until the Holocaust education and remembrance community of specialists and administrators signs up for mass therapy sessions, please do not hold your breath. Their august institutions are not likely to promote any programs that would enlighten the general public as well as themselves---they know so much already!—about the economics of the Holocaust and the fundamental tenet which declares unabashedly that one of the root causes of anti-Semitism is economic resentment of the ‘other.’

Did you ever stop and wonder why there are fewer than ten attorneys—yes! Ten attorneys in the entire nation of the United States of America who agree to represent victims of Nazi/Fascist cultural plunder. TEN! Not eleven, not twelve, not twenty. TEN…

Did you ever stop and wonder why there is not a single law firm in the United States that has a pro bono practice (free legal assistance) specifically aimed at Holocaust claimants who wish to reclaim looted cultural assets regardless of the monetary value of the looted asset proper?

Did you ever stop and wonder why there is not a single academic program in the United States which teaches students about plunder, economic crimes against persecuted populations during times of war, especially when acts of genocide accelerate the elimination of millions of men, women, and children from the face of the earth thanks to the active collaboration of countless individuals who see in the disappearance of the Jews a crime of opportunity, an opportunity for personal betterment, improvement and enrichment?

Did you ever stop and wonder why the museum community has not seen fit to establish professional training programs to enhance, refine, and improve the critical research skills of museum professionals in the esoteric arts of provenance research—the investigation into ownership histories of objects in their collections—rooted in a historical understanding of the displacements of cultural assets between 1933 and 1945?

Well, I’d be curious to know if you have answers to the aforementioned questions. If I have erred, I hope—no, I insist—that you point out my deviant ways so as to edify our reading public. But if you cannot correct me, then ask why we are at this stage of the game, two years after the Prague Conference of June 2009 on Holocaust-era assets, thirteen years after the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets of 1998 and the subsequent formulation of the sacred texts known as the Washington Principles?

There is no easy answer, is there? I didn’t think so. And I don’t blame anyone for not finding an easy answer.

Here I go again wondering: what to do? Is there an end in sight? Are we really going to achieve some modicum of progress, some truly measurable result which fosters research and restitution, transparency and ethics, higher learning and understanding, so-called “best practices” in the cultural arena? After all, the whole point of this ‘mission’ or ‘campaign’ is to close the books on the Second World War and the Nazi years, to clean up the mess left untended by thousands of officials and administrators in the Americas and in Europe who were focused precisely on recovering stolen objects and returning them, more often than not, to nations, not rightful owners. And yet, why should we care? Well, we do. Just like others care about climate change, the plight of penguins in the South Atlantic Ocean or polar bears in the Northern regions, we care about historical wrongs anchored in cultural plunder and the righting of those wrongs. C’est la vie….