24 May 2015

Thorough research drives restitution of looted art and yet….

by Marc Masurovsky

It is absolutely fair and just to ask why, in the past two decades, there have been no systematic efforts deployed to make funds available to advance research on missing art collections and other aspects of the cultural plunder that was visited upon civilians, Jewish and other, between 1933 and 1945. Some of those funds could have come from the sales of multi-million dollar works that had been restituted in past years. A conservative estimate puts at nearly 600 million dollars the total value of paintings restituted to claimants, mostly in North America, a large part of those works having come from losses suffered by members of the Austrian Jewish community, including works signed by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, darlings of the over-hyped global art market.

It is true that there have been no publicized indications that historical research played a critical role in documenting the fate of the looted cultural objects that were restituted to claimants since the 1990s. And yet, good research produces good outcomes, an admission made even by the legal counsel to the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Perhaps lawyers are to be faulted for that state of affairs. Hard to tell. It is not so much their clever swordsmanship that has enabled the return of claimed works but the meticulous documentary trail that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that looted art works did belong to their clients at the time of their confiscation and ensuing misappropriation and that they had been illegally removed from their hands for reasons having nothing to do with their legal ownership of the works, but because of their belonging to a culture reviled by their persecutors.

Nevertheless, people are what they are and we should be thankful that the claimed objects have been returned to the rightful owners who are free to do what they bloody want with them.

As for the chronic absence of funding for research that could shed more light on the murky and dark corners of economic collaboration during the Nazi years, the unsavory role played by art dealers, collectors, museum officials, their friends in government, industry and finance, and many others, it will take brave, courageous, and selfless souls to open their checkbooks and fund such research efforts.

Ideas about establishing foundations, consortia, research-driven higher education programs, and public-private partnerships could fill volumes of idle chatter. Idle because they have led nowhere. Truth be told, where there’s a will, there usually is a way. And, in the case of historical research on cultural plunder during the Nazi era, the will does not rise beyond the threshold of cocktail discussions and “bons mots” exchanged during international conferences on Nazi looted art.

At present, institutional self-serving indifference and opportunism prevail among governments on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and cloud any reasonable discussion on how to fund historical research into cultural plunder during the Nazi years and the impact of the destruction of Jewish cultural assets on the postwar world. Those who bear the brunt of this state of affairs are the diplomats and politicians who have mastered the rhetoric of restitution only to suppress any effort to fund research.

The exceptions: groups like the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany and the Commission for Art Recovery are members of a rarefied club that have supported such research. The Claims Conference has supported for 10 years now the building and maintenance of the Jeu de Paume database of art objects looted in German-occupied France and the Commission for Art Recovery has fueled research efforts in part to assist in its international art recovery litigations. In a minor way, proprietary databases like the Art Loss Register and both leading auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's, provided small but symbolic sums of money to jump-start such research in the late 1990s.

On a more hopeful note:

Recent progress in the understanding of cultural plunder in the past two decades must be acknowledged, although the work of many historians, researchers and scholars has not been translated into languages which could help reach a wider audience. Hence their findings are reaching a limited audience, namely in the German-speaking world and other linguistic micro-communities:

the Zentral Institut für Kunstgeschichte (ZIKG) in Munich, whose researchers are making a clear imprint on our understanding of the mechanisms of plunder in Nazi Germany and beyond,

the French Ministry of Culture on the works stuck in the purgatory of the Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR), the CIVS and the Institut National de l'Histoire de l'Art (INHA) in Paris*,

the Dutch Restitution Committee which has amassed significant historical research to drive its decisions, regardless of how one agrees or disagrees with them*,

a research cell in Brussels focusing on M-Aktion staffed by an interdisciplinary trio of young scholars,

the Commission for Provenance Research in Vienna*

efforts conducted by British museums a decade ago which remain one of the best examples of how museums should publicize the results of their findings on individual objects,

a growing group of individual scholars and researchers who have made important contributions to the emerging field of cultural plunder. These scholars can be found in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, the Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Greece, Finland, Israel, the United States and Canada.

This disparate international cacophony of research must be coordinated and given a cohesiveness to become truly useful for the generations to come. International symposia are not a panacea nor are a solution. International research centers must be established to coordinate such research, archives focused on plunder and its aftermath must be created to centralize key documents from a plethora of archival repositories found in dozens of countries, and graduate programs should be designed and offered to focus in an interdisciplinary framework on the complex question of plunder and its implications for civil society during and after the Nazi era.

* Last but not least, the five standing commissions on restitution--United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria--should adopt more "transparent" practices relative to the historical research that they use to reach their decisions--for or against the claimants--and make such research publicly accessible to benefit international scholarship.

Work in progress….