05 December 2012

MoMA gets a discount on German Expressionists

Cafe Couple, Otto Dix
Source: MoMA

Want a great deal on a painting by German Expressionist Otto Dix?

One such work--“Café Couple/Paar in Café”--belonged to noted German art dealer and collector Karl Buchholz who had sought refuge from Nazi Germany and greener pastures in New York in the mid-1930s, where money and opportunities flowed in the blossoming American market for Expressionists and other European modernists. The Alien Property Custodian (APC), an enforcement arm of the US Department of the Treasury, seized the painting and other works belonging to Buchholz after he was labeled as an “enemy alien”. His property became subject to “vesting” after the United States declared war on Germany following the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Eventually, the US government made these types of seized assets available for purchase by anyone interested in bidding on them.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York acquired the Dix painting for a song in 1945. What a deal!

In 1952, the APC sold another Dix painting--Workers' Children [Arbeiterkinder] from 1922--as part of the "vested" Buchholz collection.  The painting was on display at the UWM Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in November-December 1986, as part of a larger exhibit entitled "Reactions to the war: European art, 1914-1925."

Many works by Otto Dix entered private and public collections in Weimar Germany but became subject to seizure and forced sale under the Third Reich due to their "degenerate" status.  One such painting belonged to Curt Glaser, an eminent art historian and critic under Weimar who lost his job within months of Hitler's accession to power in January 1933 and was forced to sell his property, including a vast collection of works of art and books in a now-notorious forced sale in June 1933.  One of those items sits in the Freiburg Museum of Modern Art.

03 December 2012

Funeral for the idea of a US Commission on Looted Art at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, on November 27, 2012

Absurdity funeral, Francisco Goya
Source: Wikipaintings
No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Douglas Davidson, is no exception.

Davidson’s highly anticipated delivery at the “Fair and Just Solutions” International Symposium held in The Hague, Netherlands, on November 27, 2012, was cryptically dubbed “New Developments.” Fitting irony: the symposium was held at the Peace Palace in The Hague.

What new developments might have arisen in American government circles which had eluded most specialists and “insiders” in the contentious field of restitution of art stolen during the Holocaust and the Nazi years? It could certainly not be the creation of a US Commission on Looted Art, since the person who gave rise to this idea was former Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, envoy extraordinaire on all matters pertaining to the Holocaust since the Clinton years.

The idea for a US Commission on Looted Art was first announced at the end of the Holocaust-Era Assets Conference held in Prague in late June 2009. This conference, which produced its own declaration—The Terezin Declaration—was the “follow-up” conference to the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets held in Washington, DC, in early December 1998, which brought us the now-ubiquitous and oft-cited Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.

Since the Fall of 2009, the US Department of State, in concert with Ambassador Eizenstat and then Special Envoy on Holocaust Issues, Christian Kennedy, organized a series of “town meetings” whose purpose was to foster dialogue amongst all parties interested in the creation of a commission which would provide resolution mechanisms for claims filed by individuals whose families had suffered cultural losses at the hands of the Nazis and their Fascist allies more than sixty-five years ago and who wished to recover their lost property from American museums.

The sense one gleaned from these town meetings was that Ambassador Eizenstat was intent upon keeping his word—the creation of a US Commission on Looted Art—no matter what this Commission looked like and what it actually accomplished, as long as he could not be blamed for having made an empty promise.

The body language during those town meetings was unmistakable: any US Commission on Looted Art would require the approval of American museums, their directors and legal advisors in order to pass muster. That alone signified that this Commission might end up being a dead letter owing to museums’ steadfast refusal to acknowledge the validity of Holocaust-era claims for looted objects in their collections.

As for Ambassador Eizenstat, his constant references to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets (PCHA) from 1998-2000, the London Conference on Looted Gold of the late 1990s, created the impression in those town meetings that his ideas about Holocaust justice had not evolved since 1998.  During those meetings, Eizenstat would make continual reference to the so-called International Committee of Eminent Persons, a group of … well, eminent persons who sat around and pontificated about matters which involved complex historical evidence, complex forensic evidence, and far more complexity than anyone might be ready and willing to absorb in order to decide the fate of a family’s claims for property lost during the Holocaust.

The model proposed by Ambassador Eizenstat—occasional meetings of such a grouping of eminent persons who would be asked to review “meritorious” cases brought before them with respect to looted art in American museums—required that the reviewers of such cases be impartial and not at all connected with the issue of looted art and its postwar restitution.  That suggestion alone even raised the hackles of American museum lawyers who rightfully argued in tandem with art restitution lawyers, specialists, researchers, and claimants, that the adjudication process for looted art claims would be badly served if the fate of those cases rested on a poor understanding of historical research.

Good research alone was—is, and will always be—the “ad minima” guarantee for any "reasonable" approach to a looted art case. For that to happen, any US commission on looted art worth its pound of salt would have to rely heavily on professional, methodical, and empirical historical research into the circumstances of Holocaust-era thefts and misappropriations of art objects from Jewish homes and businesses.

In this time and age, research budgets do not fall within the purview of the US government, especially when the day-to-day business of members of Congress and Federal officials is to slice and dice budgets. Holocaust research? Forget about it…

Hence, the financing model for a hypothetical US Commission on Looted Art would require some form of partnership with the private sector or a system—as yet undefined—of grant-making that would allow for case-based research to occur as a precondition to reach any decision on a looted art case brought before such a Commission.

At the time of its death, the US Commission on Looted Art, as described by Ambassador Davidson at The Hague, was supposed to consist of two branches—research and adjudication—both separate and distinct so as to preserve their integrity and impartiality. That’s as far as anyone went. At least, that’s as much as we will know for a long time to come.

On Tuesday, November 27, 2012, shortly before noon, Ambassador Davidson became the inevitable bearer of bad news, announcing to a surprised and somewhat puzzled international audience that the US government was hoisting the white flag of surrender on the mast of its errant flagship, the "USS Restitution", thereby abandoning all efforts to promote a government-supported mechanism to resolve looted art cases.

Quoting Cicero frequently, Ambassador Davidson waxed eloquently at the Commission’s funeral for an idea that, like the late Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain, took a very long time to die.

Needless to say, many delegates from the five standing committees (British, French, Dutch, Austrian, German) dealing with art restitution matters in Western and Central Europe expressed their dismay over the American refusal to share in this unprecedented international effort—however limited—to heal the wounds of genocide by providing mechanisms to allow claimants to be heard and to receive justice-either through compensation or restitution.

What does the future hold?

For families seeking redress in the United States for a historical crime committed within the framework of a genocide, the verdict is: lengthy, tedious and bankrupting legal proceedings in the complex and often unfriendly American legal system which worships private property.

Two questions to consider:

1/ does this decision to abandon the creation of a US Commission on Looted Art mean that the US government is likewise forgoing any public efforts to address historical crimes of cultural plunder? Does this mean that cultural plunder is, once more, relegated to the category of an unfortunate plague of history during which one must “roll with the punches” thus returning the civilized world to its colonial past--somewhere us somewhere in the 19th century?

If so, this bodes badly for the fate of S.2212, which is currently pending in the US Senate, a bill that, if passed, will allow looted art to enter the United States, unfettered by legal claims for the return of those stolen objects, while on US territory.  Since the US presents a more favorable climate under which such claims can be filed, the passage of S.2212 will be the last nail in the coffin of restitution efforts as we know them in the United States.

2/ what role did American Jewish organizations play in the decision to abandon the idea of a US Commission on Looted Art? Now that the post-mortem of the Commission’s demise is upon us, someone will have to examine the critical role played by the organized American Jewish community in ignoring and oftentimes opposing restitution of art looted during the Holocaust years. In fact, one could rightfully argue that, notable exceptions like the Claims Conference aside, the systemic refusal of the leadership of the American Jewish community to defend the rights of Jewish families to recover art stolen from them during the Nazi years and the Holocaust has made it possible for American politicians to cast the principle of cultural restitution as marginal and irrelevant. Hence, if there is blame to assign—this is not an enjoyable assignment—it must be spread equally between Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat and the leadership of the organized American Jewish community.

What now?


Links to the five standing committees in Europe which address art restitution matters:

Austria: Beirat of the Commission for Provenance Research
France: Commission pour l'indemnisation des victimes de spoliations
Netherlands: Dutch Restitutions Committee
United Kingdom: Spoliation Advisory Panel