by Ori Z. Soltes, President, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, Inc. (*)
The Holocaust Art Restitution Project (“HARP”) was founded in 1997 to perform research pertaining to cultural property that was plundered during the Nazi period and never recovered by its original owners. This was by definition a mandate with expandable parameters. The contexts of plunder and its aftermath prove variable: while most works were stolen by the Nazis, the Soviet “Trophy Brigades” notoriously plundered from the Germans without concern as to whence the Germans had gotten such loot—for the USSR, which suffered quantitatively and qualitatively beyond what most others, certainly Americans, can imagine, whatever they brought back to their own museums was small compensation for what they had lost in lives and cultural property destruction—and allied soldiers more than occasionally walked off (or in the most egregious case, that of Joe Tom Meador, sent home in plain-wrapped boxes) with important artifacts, most often from German sites. Objects ended up not only in museums, but—thanks to an art market that flourished throughout the war without thought as to the fate of those individuals, families, galleries or museum collections from which the objects had come—in private galleries and in turn private hands and homes.
|42nd "Rainbow" Division in all its glory|
The common denominator in all of this is the manner in which greed can and did blind so many plunderers and their accomplices, both during and for decades after the war. It offers a parallel to the larger truth regarding the human species: that we can be and have historically been immeasurably destructive, that we alone turn torture into an art and killing into a science. We who can be so extraordinarily creative—who produce drawings and paintings and sculptures and edifices, as well as poetry and music, theater and dance—have an intensely dark side; the Taliban and ISIS destroy cultural property; Hitler and his minions destroyed, but also hoarded, traded and sold unprecedented quantities of it—and there was a host of enablers both then and since then for whom the possibility of direct or indirect profit or simple selfishness means that the issue of Nazi-plundered cultural property continues to be before us 70 years after the last wartime guns were fired.
For HARP, the common denominator in our research has been the desire, during the past 15 years, to offer some counterweight to these forces, to push the scales of justice toward some balance in the manner of continuing the sort of work—done in the immediate aftermath of the war, but with insufficient resources and for too brief a period of time—that can restore cultural property to those individuals from whom and those institutions from which it was forcibly taken, whether at gunpoint or at pressure point. It has been and always will be a daunting task; the issue is scaled as biblical Goliath was said to have been facing David, here HARP.
Our taste for justice, however, is not limited. There is a peculiar logic to our having taken up a cause that apparently has nothing to do with the Holocaust, but everything to do with that taste, inherent in a mandate such as ours. Sacred objects belonging to the Hopis and, as the issue has expanded, to Navajos and Zunis—and no doubt other Native American groups—have, like other sacred objects from diverse cultures across the planet, been plundered, destroyed, transferred, sold, purchased by museums and private individuals motivated by the same sort of impulses that motivated Nazi plunderers and their gallery and museum accomplices during and after World War II, Soviet hoarders and American GI thieves. The emergence during the past two decades of an awareness of this unsolved problem has followed a growing awareness of the importance of recognizing the integrity of indigenous peoples everywhere and of protecting their cultural and religious rights. Thus the two “types” of plunder injustice have finally become linked. They are linked, too, by a common principle: those with the power and experience to hold onto what they have taken (or others have taken on their behalf) use that power and experience to maintain a tenacious hold on their booty against the attempts of the plundered to regain possession of their property.
Twice now, within the past six months, an auction house in Paris and its regulatory oversight body, have ignored history, justice and the ethics that they pretend to uphold as civilized champions of culture, placing scores of sacred objects plundered from the Hopis and other American Indian tribes up for sale. The auction house ignored the question of provenance, (in the second auction going so far as to deliberately mislead would-be buyers by announcing in its catalogue that no objects up for sale had any provenance questions or problems attached to them), the issue of the indigenous peoples’ cultural and religious rights—and in the case of its regulatory oversight body, the French Conseil des Ventes, (“Board of Auction Sales”) offered its ruling on this matter, in favor of the auction house, by denying the standing, i.e. the legitimacy and indeed the very existence, as such, of the Hopis and other American Indian tribes as other than a vague group with a name apparently not found in the French dictionary.
That HARP should have taken up this cause on behalf of the Hopi tribe, to use our experience and our expertise to argue on their behalf that the auction of such artifacts not take place—the first time as an advocate, the second time as an advocate with the Power of Attorney to represent the Hopis and their Chairman—falls well within the bounds of our larger mission of seeking justice for those whose cultural property (and in this case, religious property) has been plundered and never returned to them. The same greedy motivation impelled and impels the auction house and the participants in its process, including the French Government, of continuing to despoil a particular group of its possessions and its heritage, without concern for how and when and why such artifacts were taken from their original locations in Arizona. The same desire to offer some balance to this stance that impels HARP’s interest in Nazi-plundered art has motivated HARP’s participation in fighting to get the artifacts off the market and on a trajectory back to those who made them and use them for cultural and religious purposes.
There is a particular and somewhat ironic feature in this: the French have a rather spotty, if not appalling record with regard to returning Nazi-plundered cultural property to families from which it came when holes in the national museum collections could be nicely filled by some of that property. That they have, in this latest instance of moral blindness, twice ignored their own stated position as part of the Western world regarding the reality and rights of indigenous peoples and instead have stood on the edge of legal technicalities to avoid pursuing an ethical course echoes the perspective that led so many Holocaust-era objects—from Louis XIV furniture to paintings—to remain in state museums.
HARP will continue, when asked to do so, to push those who pretend that cultural and religious property taken from its original owners ceases to have a connection to those owners simply because it has passed from hand to hand and now hangs in a public museum or is displayed in an auction house or has been purchased by a buyer who chose and/or chooses not to ask questions as to where his or her prize came from and how it left its original home.
(*) Ori Z. Soltes teaches at Georgetown University across a range of disciplines, from theology and art history to philosophy and political history. He also is the former Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC, where he curated exhibitions on a variety of subjects from archaeology to ethnography to contemporary art. He has taught, lectured and curated exhibitions across the country and internationally. He also is the author of over 230 articles, exhibition catalogues, essays and books on a range of topics. Recent books include The Ashen Rainbow: The Arts and the Holocaust; Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source; Searching for Oneness: Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and Untangling the Web: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Why the Middle East is a Mess and Always Has Been. Ori, along with HARP’s team, was also involved in a number of restitution matters, such as providing the historical research and background with regard to Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” case, as well as the restitution of “Odalisque”, a painting by Henri Matisse, to the Paul Rosenberg family.