Since the seizure of “Portrait of Wally” in early January 1998, provenance research has lost its innocence. Battle lines have been drawn between defendants upholding their rights to keep art objects under fire for being “looted”, on one side, and plaintiffs demanding the return of those art objects arguing that they were the rightful owners. These claimants argued that their families had been despoiled for racial, ethnic, religious and other reasons at some point between 1933 and 1945 during the twelve year reign of the Nazi Party and as a result of the expansionist war decreed by Adolf Hitler and his minions against Europe’s “undesirables”-Jews, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, emotionally and physically challenged individuals, and anyone else who was caught in the cross hairs of the Axis powers in a continental-wide fit of man-made madness, verging on an apocalyptic nightmare worthy of any painting signed by Hieronymous Bosch.
There had been a glimmer of hope at the time of the so-called Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets on November 30-December 3, 1998. Art was not supposed to be on the calendar of the conference. But the seizure of the Schiele paintings (actually, two paintings had been seized at MoMA in early January 1998) changed the configuration of the planning for the Washington Conference. American policymakers were not pleased about the seizure because they argued that it had besmirched the bilateral relations of the United States and Austria. In so stating, the US government had sided against the claimants and had upheld Austria’s argument at the time that the entire flap over “Wally” was a private matter to be resolved between the claimants—heirs of Ruth Bondi-Jarai and Fritz Grunbaum—and the Leopold Foundation, then owner of the seized paintings. Still, Morgenthau’s muscled intervention at MoMA triggered an existential debate inside Austrian political and cultural circles which forced Austria to reexamine its entire relationship with its past as it pertained to the illegal seizures of Jewish cultural property and how postwar Austrian authorities had mishandled claims for return of such looted assets. The end result: the only restitution law in the world which mandates “provenance research” in all Federal public cultural institutions of the Republic of Austria.
Begrudgingly, the US government and its many allies at the planning table for the Washington Conference inserted art as one of the many different types of looted assets whose status needed to be discussed by the representatives of nations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) attending the international event. The Washington Conference produced the so-called non-binding “Washington Principles”—11 recommendations that have become de facto “policy” for lack of a better word in many nations that want to remove that cultural monkey off their backs.
For some, the Washington Conference was a success. For others, it was a dismal failure. For those who deemed it a success, the Conference had provided a unique forum to get a sense of where the world stood as far as justice to Holocaust survivors was concerned and to promote greater assistance to their dwindling numbers. The principles notwithstanding, everyone went home thinking they had done God’s work for three days. Those who saw in the Conference a dismal failure balked at the so-called Principles as yet another diplomatic way out of taking full responsibility for not having done anything concrete to render justice to the victims of plunder while throwing a sop at museums, and other members of the art market by reassuring them that, although provenance research was highly recommended to fill “unavoidable gaps” in the history of ownership of art objects under their care and stewardship, “fair and just solutions” ought to be sought in order to ensure a measure of justice for all. In the end, for the naysayers, the Washington Conference led to a massive failure of international public policy, thus creating a vacuum of power and decision-making over the fate of countless art objects whose newfound status in legal limbo—plundered or not? Restitutable or not?—had to be resolved not with legislation but through, oftentimes, vicious legal battles pitting museums’ hired guns against plaintiffs’ hired guns.
The search for justice over a massive crime of plunder tied to genocide has turned into an international legal slugfest. Instead of chasing airplane crash victims, it became more profitable to seek out victims of plunder.