13 September 2012

O Canada! Where did you go wrong?

What is the problem up there?

Way back when, at the turn of the twenty-first century, an international conference was held in Ottawa hosted by the National Gallery of Canada, where members of the art trade, civil servants, researchers, claimants, survivors, art historians, lawyers, and hangers-on from various nations met to discuss looted art and restitution as a global problem but more particularly as a Canadian problem.

After three intense days of deliberations and animated discussions, the participants to this conclave came up with a blueprint with could have led to meaningful reforms in Canada that might have raised the ethical bar, thus ensuring that museums, dealers, collectors—the private and public sectors—did the right thing, cleaned up their collections, stopped buying looted artifacts and stolen art, and educated their public and their personnel about the ethics of collecting and the evils of cultural plunder. In some respect, the Ottawa Conference had accomplished a small miracle, one that was out of reach of the Washington Holocaust Assets Conference of December 1998.

Lost opportunities. Had this blueprint been enacted, even in part, it would have placed Canada at the forefront of the art restitution movement, a title that Austria is fighting hard to gain, since it is the only country in the world with a basic and generically effective restitution law.

Twelve years later, nothing has happened of any significance in Canada, save for interesting declarations, expressions of good will, attempts at increased provenance research in various museums (three at last count) and an inability, more to the point, an unwillingness to return stolen cultural property to their rightful owners. All this inaction despite the presence of highly educated and aware specialists, art lawyers specialized in restitutions, at least in name only, as well as thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors whose property was stolen but who somehow do not weigh in to these debates. Well-intentioned people everywhere, but no one to step up to the plate and tip the scales in favor of JUSTICE. Even the Canadian Jewish Congress has vanished from the very debates that it used to stoke with glee in the late 1990s. Times have changed, indeed.

Why the sour face?

Montreal is a poster child for everything that is wrong and that is right about Canada. Forget Toronto because no one is paying attention there.

Who gets it right? Why, the Max Stern Foundation at Concordia University. This foundation, established after the death of a German Jewish art dealer from Düsseldorf who was forced to leave the Third Reich for the obvious reasons after having been forced to sell his collection of several hundred Old Master paintings.

Max Stern's gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany
Source: Concordia University
Forced sale drove Max Stern into the ground and Nazi anti-Jewish policies drove him into exile to Canada where he became a successful businessman and bequeathed his estate to Concordia University, with the caveat that it would have to establish a project whose main goal would be to recover his lost works of art. Brilliant! The only project of its kind in the entire world… No kidding.

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal
Source: Wikipedia
Who gets it wrong? The Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montreal, a wonderful, albeit eclectic, compilation of brilliant Old Master paintings abutting fairly tacky and should I say “pompier” art from the 19th and early 20th century.  Now is not the time to be snobbish about the quality of the art. Suffice it to say that, from the 1950s on, this charming museum benefited from the largesse of a handful of very wealthy donors who parted with their classical acquisitions, coupled with new acquisitions over the past several decades aiming to place the Musée des Beaux-Arts as close as possible to the pantheon of great museums in North America, if not in Canada. Mission accomplished? You be the judge. Meanwhile, in their great haste to acquire, the museum staff and board members forgot to do their due diligence and, in the process, absorbed a small trove of paintings of dubious origin. The most glaring examples are:

The Deification of Aeneas (1642-1644) by Charles Le Brun
Source: Wikipedia
The Deification of Aeneas (1642-1644), by Charles Le Brun, which once belonged to Jacques Goudstikker, a wealthy Dutch art merchant who perished accidentally on a boat in the North Sea shortly before the Nazi takeover of Holland in spring of 1940. The rest being history, several thousand pieces in his extraordinary collection were dispersed under the watchful eyes of Marshal Goering and his minions. Goudstikker’s heirs have spent decades seeking the return of these stolen works. Successes and failures have followed in quick succession, but the behavior of the Musée des beaux-arts of Montréal ranks as low as that of the Norton Simon Museum in California over its stubborn reticence to relinquish paintings that belong to the Goudstikker family, even if all of the evidence in hand is clear and incontrovertible.

Das Duett” by Gerhard Honthorst, which used to be the property of a German Jew named Bruno Spiro before being sold under less than honorable circumstances in 1934. How it ended up at the Musée des Beaux-Arts remains unclear.

"Das Duett" by Gerhard Honthorst
Source: Lost Art
As with many cultural institutions, the Montreal museum’s leadership has been sitting pat on its hands, waiting for things to not happen. That is one strategy that characterizes most museums’ responses to restitution claims, the strategy of attrition. Tire them out, stall for time, until someone passes away, namely the claimant, or the plaintiff’s treasury runs dry, or a combination thereof.

It’s even more unfortunate to have to witness this callous state of affairs when one realizes that the chairperson of the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montreal is one of the most successful Holocaust survivors in Canada. Yes, you heard it here. This is not esoteric or a mystery, no one is hiding under a rock here. Mr. Hornstein is a distinguished member of the Canadian Jewish community, a highly decorated member of Canadian society, someone to look up to and admire, especially after everything that he went through, least of which was to be deported to Auschwitz. And yet, with the moral sway and the burden of history that Mr. Hornstein carries on his frail shoulders, although he sounds like one tough guy, a man known for his boundless generosity, why does he not awaken from his dream and persuade the Museum’s board to relinquish those few paintings that are at issue to their rightful owners, thus transforming him into an even greater mensch than he already is? Why? Does anyone know? Maybe it’s because at least one painting in the collection was claimed by the Polish government. Who knows?

It’s always been a puzzle as to why it would have to come to this, time and time again, where Jewish claimants, some rich, most not, would have to butt heads against formidable members of the Jewish community, current possessors of their property, and bloody their heads against brick walls of indifference, verging on disdain and contempt. Yes, strong words these are, but truthful words, words spoken from decades of hapless and helpless observation. How many times have Jewish claimants come up against other members of the community in futile attempts to knock sense into them and invoke age-old communal ties to do the right thing much like the Torah commands them to do? Nothing doing. For some inexplicable reason, the principle of having acquired a stolen work of art in good faith primes over any moral, ethical, communal, communitarian, spiritual, religious, or plain commonsensical reason. It simply ain’t gonna happen.

So, what is to be done?

All-out war? Is that what where we are headed? Intra-communitarian warfare? Silly discourses about working hard and having suffered greatly and why should I simply hand this painting back to you? How do I know it’s yours anyway? And so forth and so on? So much unnecessary strife, so much grandstanding, why? As usual, it’s the principle that matters, on both sides of the fence. The current possessors reason like 2nd Amendment nut cakes who prize their guns over human life, while claimants invoke rightfully the wrongs of history, the certainty that injustice has been committed, brandish the incontrovertible proof that backs their claim, invoke and implore, and plead, in vain. Maybe the Mounties can resolve this, much like agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) do in the United States whose track record is practically unblemished. After all, it’s hard to challenge a badge and a gun, because there’s not much left to say. A crime is a crime. But if the hapless claimant comes unarmed, the current possessor eats him alive, arguing that there is no crime. Long live Kafka!

It is somewhat a fitting irony to have two antithetical institutions and modes of behavior co-existing within half a mile of one another in Montreal—the Max Stern Art Restitution Project on the one hand and the Musée des Beaux-Arts on the other. They embody the optimism that one can feel whereby it is possible to recover and to do right, while the other exudes cynicism and reinforces our endless pessimism that museum boards and their supporters live on another planet in some kind of art-fueled apartheid.

As yet another pessimistic sign of things to come, there is an event coming up at McGill University, also in Montreal, which appears to be underwritten by one of the top law firms in Canada. The event hosts none other than Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to discuss the intersection of art and law when it comes to questions of restitution of looted art. Well, now, who else but Glenn Lowry to discuss in the most objective and impartial manner how his institution has refused steadfastly ever since the end of the Second World War to return anything to anyone.

Glenn Lowry
Source: The Lattice Group
Quite the contrary, MOMA is always happy to preserve, safeguard, store, display, acquire, and otherwise hoard works of art that do not necessarily belong to this fine cultural institution. Perhaps, these words are on the cusp of libel. Perhaps they are, but go ask the Georg Grosz heirs, go ask the heirs of the Redslob family, go ask anyone about Alfred Barr’s disingenuous and clever ways of acquiring looted art on the European market and then on the American market, hiding behind sycophantic dealers and collectors only too happy to minister to Barr’s wishes, in the hopes that he would …. what? Curry favors to them? The art world being what it is, anything is possible, of course. But Alfred Barr was no dummy, no he wasn’t. When looted art, art looted by the Nazi government from its own citizens and institutions was put up for sale in Lucerne, Switzerland, in late June 1939, Barr didn’t dare embarrass himself by bidding in person for those works. No, he hired “cut-outs” who acted on his behalf and turned the acquired works over to MOMA without dropping a hint that the purchases had been commissioned by good ol’ Alfred.

Alfred H. Barr
Source: Wikipedia
Back to Canada... Suffice it to say that for McGill to host a presentation on a subject as complex and contentious as restitution of looted art by asking the proverbial elegant fox to lead the discussion, the fox being Mr. Lowry of course, is already a very bad sign, an indication that there is no interest on the part of this fine academic institution to provide a forum where the complexities of plunder and its consequences for institutions such as MOMA can be brought to bear for the benefit of the audience. Or one senses callous indifference on the part of the organizers of this event as they prefer to display their talent at bringing in one of the most successful American museum directors on their campus to discuss a topic where he unfortunately behaves more like a perpetrator than a Solomon, thereby cheating its public of an unique opportunity to apprehend the role of cultural institutions as enablers of historic injustices by refusing to return objects that clearly do not belong to them.

The fight continues…

Come on, Canada! Wake up! Smell the coffee! Do something useful and honorable! Restitute!