19 July 2013

When is restitution a bad thing? The case of Melanesian wood carvings

by Verity Algar, co-posting with ARCAblog

The Holocaust Art Restitution Project and other organisations aiming to restitute Holocaust-looted art to its rightful owners justifiably propose restitution to be a positive thing in this context. However, my research has shown that not all cultural groups want to re-possess their cultural heritage.

I recently spoke at the Association of Research into Crimes Against Art’s 5th Annual Conference, where I compared these two objects:

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt. (1907). Neue Galerie, New York.
Source: Verity Algar
Malanggan, from Northern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Collected in 1890. Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Cambridge
Source: Verity Algar

Why would I compare a twentieth-century European painting with a nineteenth-century wood carving from Melanesia, I hear you say?! Well, by comparing these different objects, I wanted to point out that their original owners take vastly different approaches to the restitution of these objects. Let me explain.

In Jewish communities, generally, the original owners of the cultural objects and/or their heirs, feel the need to re-claim their objects in order to gain a sense of closure on a traumatic past. As the following excerpts demonstrate, the language of restitution claims suggest that the Holocaust is not truly over until looted art objects have been restituted:
“The return of stolen art may be one of the last acts of the Shoah”
(Dellheim 2000 cited in Glass 2004: 117) 
“museums … are dealing with the unfinished business of the Holocaust”
(editorial, Seattle Times 16 June 1999) 
“Austria will move closer to closing the book on a somber chapter in 20th-century history”
(Czernin 1998 cited in Glass 2004: 118)
The people of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, do not wish for the malanggan which they themselves created, to be returned to them, despite malanggan being essential to their culture. This may initially seem puzzling because they can often take more than three months to carve (Küchler 2002: 1). Yet they are not made to be displayed, treasured and revered as much of the art confiscated by the Nazis was. Malanggan are displayed for a few hours during mortuary ceremonies, before being left to the elements to decompose (Küchler and Melion 1991: 29). As money became increasingly important in New Ireland, the sale of malanggan to Western collectors became an attractive alternative (Küchler and Melion 1991: 29). More than five thousand malanggan have been collected by Western museums (Küchler and Melion 1991: 27).  As other indigenous groups began to claim the objects that constituted their cultural memory from Western museums, the museums considered restituting the malanggan too.

This illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of malanggan to Melanesian culture.  During the carving process, the sculpture is imbued with life force, which is “symbolically killed” when ownership of the malanggan is transferred from the deceased’s family to related kin in exchange for money (Küchler and Melion 1991: 32). The image of the malanggan, however, is preserved as cultural memory and is reproduced in future sculptures (Küchler and Melion 1991: 32). Susanne Küchler and Walter Melion refer to the conflicting status of memory surrounding malanggan practice as “strategic remembering and deliberate forgetting” (1991: 30). To restitute these objects to the people of New Ireland would be to rekindle a specific aspect of their cultural memory, thus interfering with the process of “deliberate forgetting”.

Whilst it is fundamentally important that organisations such as ARCA and HARP continue to support research into Holocaust-era looted art, it is equally important that we understand why restitution can be incredibly problematic for some groups of people. Far from interrupting or countering my pro-restitution tendency, the argument against the restitution of malanggan can run alongside this tendency. As a concept, restitution is neither good nor bad. Rather, decisions about whether or not to restitute cultural objects need to be made on a culture-specific basis.

Verity Algar is a second year BA in History of Art student at University College London, where she minors in Anthropology. She recently spoke on ‘Cultural memory and the restitution of cultural property: Comparing Nazi-looted art and Melanesian malanggan’ at the Association of Research into Crimes Against Art’s 5th Annual Conference. She is hoping to complete the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate before working in a field relating to cultural heritage protection. 

01 July 2013

It has been 15 years since that fateful year of 1998: what do we have in 2013?

The American government prefers to let the market decide on what is fair and just for Holocaust victims of cultural plunder.

European governments are loath to challenge the cultural institutions that they subsidize directly and indirectly. By so doing, they legitimize the misappropriation of untold numbers of art objects and they prevent an impartial and scientific examination of the history of these objects which “ended up” in their basements and depots during and after the Second World War.

On the brighter side…

A growing number of curators and other art professionals have changed the way they work in American and European institutions when faced with problematic ownership histories for objects being accessioned or already in their collections—that’s reason enough to be guardedly optimistic.

“Art market players” are more aware than in the recent past regarding the complications arising from the trade in looted cultural assets. But that is all relative. Outside of Paris, London, and New York, that statement becomes moot. Moreover, the absence of verifiable statistics makes it nigh impossible to measure the result of such “increased awareness” because of the near impossibility of coming up with even a gross estimate of restitutions triggered exclusively by the art market’s due diligence efforts. Something to work towards for the sake of “transparency.”

Back to the dark side…

Fewer than five—yes, a number between 0 and 5—institutions of higher learning in the world—as far as one can tell—offer either intermittent or regular academic programs focused solely on provenance research. If universities, colleges, institutes—private and public—continue to be obstinate in their refusal to satisfy a growing demand for such programs, the only possible remedy is to create alternative programs that specialize in provenance research and its interdisciplinary corollaries. Where there is a will, there is a way!

There is no public policy--national or international—with which victims of plunder can assert their interests in seeking the recovery of their stolen cultural property.  It’s time to shame international non-governmental organizations that have repeatedly ignored calls to meet the needs of individuals, entities, and groups whose cultural assets have been and continue to be the targets of theft and plunder.

Some lawyers who call themselves “restitution lawyers” have never recovered anything on behalf of their clients, and yet… they command the respect of their peers in the legal profession.

After all these years, claimants still cannot rely on the international Jewish community to support their quest for restitution of stolen cultural assets. Exceptions are few and duly noted: the New York-based Claims Conference—although the Claims Conference does not handle individual art claims, it stands out as the principal advocate on a global scale for laws and policies that favor the return of looted cultural assets to their rightful owners. Oh yes! In Israel, there is a parastatal organization called Hashavah whose mandate for recovery of looted art only pertains to objects that are located in Israel proper. . And that’s about the size of it, folks.

Left standing are the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and the Commission for Art Recovery, both American-based organizations devoted in their specifically different ways to securing some measure of justice for claimants and to documenting cultural losses during the Holocaust. In the United Kingdom, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe marches on.

What is to be done?

Hashava Poster, Source: Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs

In praise of future collaborative endeavors through provenance research training workshops

Preparations are currently under way to organize a third provenance research training workshop (the first two were in Magdeburg, Germany, and in Zagreb, Croatia) under the aegis of the Prague-based European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) and the New York-based Claims Conference. It is scheduled to take place in the first week of December 2013.

Lostart.de of the Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg, Source: Aachener Zeitung
Until then, it is worth reviewing some of the more unusual by-products of bringing together for one intensive week thirty or so men and women of all ages who hail from more than a dozen countries… to discuss provenance research, art looting, restitution problems, collections management, forensic methods, Kultur, and any other topic that stimulates one’s interest in such a fulcrum of debate and exchange…:

Hrvatski drzavni arhiv, Source: HDA

This international workshop allows participants, instructors, and specialists to exchange, discuss, argue, disagree, lament, applaud, question, and otherwise engage in dialogue for approximately 50 hours spread out over six days.

Greater awareness

Participants report how the provenance research workshop has influenced the way in which they approach the history of art objects. Others have indicated the need to modify the questions that they ask when faced with problematic provenances. Still more have recognized the importance of historical context when trying to answer that nagging question: who really owns the object?

New paths of research and inquiry

This category applies mostly, but not exclusively, to the undergraduate and graduate students from universities and colleges on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean who attended the Magdeburg (June 2012) and Zagreb (March 2013) workshops. Some indicated how the workshop encouraged them to re-think basic assumptions that they had held about their various lines of inquiry pertaining to the displacement of art objects during the Nazi years. Others chose to examine new topics when they returned to their respective institutions of higher learning. In short, the stimulus produced by a week’s worth of intellectual discourse and exchange hit the mark.
Muzejski dokumentacijski centar, Source: MDC


The international provenance workshops do provide a unique moment to “network” in close quarters under controlled conditions. What is the end result? New chemistry, different bonds, yielding fruitful outcomes, new friendships, new sources of information, new knowledge… novelty and renewed commitments to make things better… as in proposing amendments to existing laws, facilitating recoveries of art objects, keeping current on on-going investigations into art crimes, assessing future possibilities to cooperate, realizing that research interests overlap, working together, sharing information...across cultures and disciplines, whether from North America, Western Europe, Central Europe, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, other parts of Europe and the Middle East.

Kerfuffles about provenance research training and art restitution

What does it matter where one is from and what title one carries as an adornment or what professional relationships one benefits from to get ahead in the world?

Provenance research training is designed to transcend petty nationalisms and chauvinisms as well as self-interested power plays designed to divide, splinter, factionalize men and women who have no other interest but to learn, share, and improve themselves and the environment in which they work and research, refine or correct their methodologies and analytical strategies to reach answers that bring them closer to that elusive quest for the historical truth. Of course, none of us reach it, it is a bit like the Holy Grail, but the quest itself provides us with a bounty of answers and new questions that make this adventure well worth it.

To those who believe that there are geopolitical approaches to provenance research, that one’s nationality and culture are essential to fathom the complexities and specificities of cultural plunder and all matters relative to the disposition of art objects, no one can stop you from being divisive; frankly, there is room for all of us on this planet. If you earnestly believe that there is a Czech or Polish or German approach to provenance research, then bless your heart;

To those who have been involved for years or decades in “art restitution” matters writ large, whether for pleasure or for profit, maybe the time has come to rethink your involvement in these matters and assess the extent to which you are more interested in protecting your imagined spheres of influence than doing what is right and working to genuinely make a difference by promoting greater transparency in the art world, improved access to and sharing of information pertaining to the history of ownership of cultural objects; and to fashion reasonable national and international instrumentalities that transcend market and government interests and are truly rooted in a quest for justice for the victims of plunder and their issue. Otherwise, it might be time to pack it in…
Definition of Kerfuffles, Source: Merriam-Webster via Google

1998: Year Zero of Art Restitution?

Highlights from that fateful year include, but are not limited to:

-the seizure of two paintings by Egon Schiele at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which prompted some soul searching in Austrian government and museum circles, the outcome of which was the world’s only Art Restitution Law;

Logo, Source: PCHA
-Congressional hearings in Washington, DC, on the role of the US government in facilitating or hampering the restitution of assets looted from Jews and other victims of the Third Reich;

–the establishment of a Presidential Commission to examine the role played by the US government in the recovery and return of property stolen from Jews between 1933 and 1945,

–the recently established Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO), a component of the New York State Banking Department broadened its mandate to include looted art claims,

–the organization of a landmark international conference aimed at creating a new consensus regarding the dispensation of justice in matters of plunder against Jews and other victims of Nazi and Fascist persecution,

–passage of the Holocaust Victims Redress Act and the aborted introduction of legislation to tighten due diligence practices in American museums (an attempt that was scuttled by then Congressman Schumer’s ambition to become Senator or his close relationships with New York museums, hard to say…).

What a year!

From Inside Neolithic Walls: On Collaboration and Cooperation

by Martin Terrazas, co-posting with ARCAblog

Individuals have asked me about the quality of the program offered by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, similarly, the Provenance Research Training Program. Why travel across the Atlantic Ocean despite such expense? Why attend postgraduate certificate-based programs in unfamiliar cultures and societies?

Daily moments of cross-cultural communication at Caffé Grande evoke inspiration: Understanding the tone of a buongiorno is essential. The relationship between customer and barista in implicit. Friendliness and attempts to become more Italian are rewarded with pleasantries. The morning caffeine jolt is more than a financial exchange; it requires mutual cooperation and collaboration.

Therein lies lessons for preventing art crime and conducting provenance research. There is little room for undue opposition and overly emotional outbursts as both are forensic exercises, in which, ultimately, the objective is to determine who has proper title to a stolen object. Research, investigation, analysis, and context are essential. The desire to jockey into position for fame and fortune is futile; ambition, in Amelia, Magdeburg, Zagreb, and future conference cities, is better focused on becoming a more refined, cooperative and ethical professional.

The existence of dishonorable participants in the art market is given; the larger question is whether these individuals define the art market or rather the art market defines them. Experience with “Cultural Plunder by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg: Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume” and other databases allows me to realize that greed marks a loss of power and reputation. Rather than intrigue, the initials of Adolph Hitler and Hermann Göring on archival documents eternally evoke disgust and failure.

In saying benvenuto in the current “age of angst”, it is better to live in an environment of mutual cooperation.[1] Amelia and the think tank that settles into its crevices during the Mediterranean’s hottest months, similar to the periodic week-long efforts as a result of the 2009 Terezín Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, empowers future generations to learn through discourse and discussion.
[1] Joergen Oerstrom Moeller, “Welcome to the Age of Angst,” Singapore Management University, 12 August 2012.

Martin Terrazas is a student with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. He is a contributor to the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. He assisted in the release and continues in the expansion of “Cultural Plunder by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg: Database of Art Objects” – a cooperation between the Looted Art and Cultural Property Initiative of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, World Jewish Restitution Organization, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, Das Bundesarchiv, and Ministère des Affaires étrangère et européannes. He participated in the Provenance Research Training Program – a project of the European Shoah Legacy Institute – hosted at the Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg.