28 May 2015

Memorial Day Ruminations

by Ori Z Soltes

Three related issues interwove themselves in my mind thanks to a serendipitous catching up with emails on this sunny Memorial Day weekend. Since "memorial" derives from the same Latin root as "memory" then it is particularly appropriate that, on a weekend when we are reminded to remember our war dead, the singular human capacity for memory and its verbal, visual and other articulations direct itself to related matters pertaining to the dead--and the living--from a range of different kinds of wars.

I was impressed by the youtube record of a brief speech by Eric Sundby, president of the student-run Holocaust Remembrance and Restitution Society at Oklahoma University in Norman, OK. The speech was in support of a resolution before the Oklahoma State legislature, HR 1026, that would call on the Fred Jones Museum of Oklahoma University to engage in a full process of provenance research.

In his speech, Sundby observed that, in practical terms, this means that the museum must both research the ownership history of objects in its collections that were acquired without the benefit of that research at the time of acquisition, and for which there is the possibility that they were stolen; and that it must commit itself to rigorously research the ownership history of potential acquisitions in the future.

The specific issue that prompted the legislation and Sundby's speech is the claim by Leone Meyer, in France, for the small Pissarro painting, La Bergère ("The Shepherdess"), which was stolen (together with dozens of other works of art) from the Meyer family, by the Nazis, under the aegis of the Alfred Rosenberg-guided task force whose purpose it was to plunder cultural property from the Nazis' victims. (Rosenberg's earlier claim to fame had been his orchestration of the Nazi theory that differentiated "Aryans" from Jews, Slavs, Roma and others, physiologically, mentally and morally).
La Bergere, by Camille Pissarro

As anyone who is interested in the issue of Nazi-Plundered cultural property is aware, the President of Oklahoma University and the Director of the Fred Jones Museum have steadfastly refused to consider restituting the painting to Ms. Meyer, based on a remarkable combination of pseudo-legal technicalities and egocentric obtuseness. Sundby referred to the Museum's assertion that restitution would set "a bad precedent" and that "the history of [the painting's] ownership history is not known." Sundby held up a document from the US Archives, stamped with Alfred Rosenberg's ERR Task Force stamp, indicating unequivocally that  La Bergère was item #13 plundered from the Meyer family.
Meyer 13-RG 260 M1943 Reel 15 NARA

ERR labeling on photo of Meyer 13
The Museum's refusal to accord justice and pursue an ethical path in the face of remarkably clear evidence as to the Nazi theft of the Pissarro from the Meyers, and its cynical use of an earlier failed effort by Meyer's father to gain restitution in Switzerland, (due, at the time, to what is now universally regarded as a faulty legal issue: the time limits within which claims might be made and to the Swiss judiciary's refusal to call into question the "good faith" of art dealers suspected of recycling art looted in Axis-controlled Europe) as a legal precedent, is profoundly disturbing. This is what has prompted virtually the entire state of Oklahoma, from students and ordinary citizens to State legislators, to rise up in protest and demand restitution.

Almost equally troubling is the documentary evidence suggesting that well over a decade ago a colleague from a different museum had alerted the Fred Jones museum curators of a potential provenance problem with this painting--and perhaps with some 30 others that had come from the same source--and that the Museum staff chose to minimize the alert at that time. That is to say, they chose not to engage in provenance research (and in this case, that research would not have been overly complicated), as if they had hoped that the issue would disappear.

Instead, it has returned, with a vengeance. Which leads me to the second issue that has been bothering me this weekend. The verbiage of HR 1026 is virtually drawn, in its entirety, from statements made well over a decade ago by Museum Directors in both the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of American Museum Directors (AAMD) in response to a concatenation of public events that began with an all-day conference at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish museum and the founding of HARP (September 4, 1997); and led to the HARP-inspired State Department conference that produced the so-called Washington Principles (in December 1998), signed by nearly four dozen nations at that time.

The august statements made by both AAM and AAMD pledged strong new efforts toward provenance research and a concerted effort to restitute works in their collections that had been plundered by the Nazis, where victims or their heirs could be found. Alas, the track record has meandered gradually downhill for the most part since then, as, with some noteworthy exceptions, American museums preferred to downplay the demand for provenance research and in many cases resisted the requests of claimants for judicious consideration of their claims, for their plundered works and for justice.

More subtly, museums still offer remarkably little information about works of art to their visitors, with respect to the narrative of plunder within the narrative of ownership. Where bona fide art historical enquiry should crave every bit of information about a work of art--who made it and when and where, and also who first and then who next owned it, and indeed what the entire trail of ownership up to the present has been--for this last sort of datum is essential to the larger story of culture and within it, economics and cultural patronage--the available information to the staff, by the staff and to the public (that the museum presumably wants to educate and edify and not merely entertain), remains remarkably limited.

In part this is because of the apparent limits on museum-staff skill at engaging in provenance research--at reading and understanding the documents that offer information on ownership history. (How else could the Fred Jones Museum argue that the provenance of La Bergère is unknown, when the archival documents are so clear?) Mind you, the museum and gallery community has continued to mouth its interest in understanding all of this better, but when seminars and short courses have been made available to it, the classroom remains devoid of participation from that community. If the museums don't understand or cannot tell the story of objects that have been plundered, they certainly cannot be expected to understand why restitution even matters, much less be sympathetic to the process; they cannot be expected to share a story that they don't know with their audiences. The trail from 1997 to 2015 and from Washington, DC to Norman, Oklahoma is a rugged one, with very uneven footing.

The contexts of history and art history are large ones. I noticed while watching Sundby's youtube-recorded speech that, in the background, behind him, there stood a life-sized bronze statue of a Native American. From my viewing angle it appeared generic: a non-specific American Indian. But then I thought--this is Oklahoma, after all--that the sculpture may well have been of a Cherokee. And I thought: how ironic! In 1838 in what is known as the Trail of Tears, tens of thousands of Cherokee, native to Georgia and surrounding areas were force-marched all the way to Oklahoma. The reason: white Euro-American settlers wanted access to the rich farmland and forests that the Cherokee had inhabited for generations. The outcome: a small-scale genocide. Thousands of Cherokee perished along the way to Oklahoma, where those who survived the journey were forced to take up residence in an area reserved for them--a reservation--that offered nothing like the land from which they and come, nothing that would be conducive to living lives anything like those they lived back east.

North America, then, and the United States in particular, has a lamentable history with regard to the treatment of Native Americans by whites and by the white federal government. So--and this is third part of my interwoven Memorial Day rumination--there on youtube is a functional symbol of that horrific past, a past which the United States is still in the process of trying to shape toward a happier present. And before that symbol a speech is being offered to support legislation intended to push an American museum to restitute a painting to the heir of a family that was part of a different tale of tears.

And meanwhile, in Paris, in the country from which that Jewish claimant comes, the EVE auction house is about to offer up, for the third time in barely a year, objects sacred to various Native American tribes--in this case, specifically the Hopis, from Arizona. The French have apparently completely forgotten that they are signatories to acts that recognize the rights of indigenous peoples world-wide with regard, among other things, to their cultural and sacred heritage and property. American dealers who know that they cannot hope to unload others' sacred property anywhere in the United States have turned to France to help preserve and extend this particular tale and trail of tears.

Mr. Sundby, in his elegantly concise speech with that statue behind him and the ERR document before him observed that his organization supports the legislation of HR 1026 because "we stand for our community, our nation and our fellow human beings." As students at Oklahoma University, his organization would prefer their tuition dollars to go toward, well, education, and not toward lining the pockets of lawyers defending a classic, unethical case. But it seems that the Fred Jones Museum has forgotten about moral education, as have most of the American museum staffs who remain uneducated with regard to provenance research and its role in larger historical and cultural contexts, and as the French and their auction houses seem to have forgotten about the meaning of community and of humanity. Memory is an important human instrument but a flawed one indeed, particularly when it is embedded so deeply in ego and arrogance.