13 January 2017

What is to be done?

by Marc Masurovsky

Locating looted art in public and private collections, auction houses, galleries, is one thing; recovering these plundered objects is quite another.

The search for looted cultural assets is extremely tedious. Some people get lucky with “low-hanging fruits” like well-defined provenance information for objects being offered for sale or being displayed in a museum, which contains critical information that might lead to a match between the object and a plundered owner.

Those instances are rare.

The tedium of research concerns all other objects—weeks, months, sometimes years of research, often led by one or two people, most of the time on a part-time basis because there is no reliable source of money to underwrite such an investigative and analytical effort.

If progress has been made on documenting cultural losses at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators over the past twenty years, there has been no progress in establishing a solid, long-term funding mechanism to ensure that research into the ownership histories of countless objects and their location is sustained over a long period of time.

To remedy this chronic shortage of funds for research into the looted cultural heritage of the Jewish people, historians, investigators, researchers, even curators, have tended to focus their attention on single collections and/or a small clutch of plundered objects. These efforts aim to clarify the history of objects coming from a single owner, or located in a single museum or collection. But even those efforts are lengthy, arduous, and end up yielding few fruits, for all sorts of reasons, the main ones being lack of capital and legal and logistical obstacles to gain access to relevant data.

How does one resolve this paltry state of affairs?

One cannot locate any looted object if one does not devote the needed resources to conduct solid, forensic, investigative research into its whereabouts, ensuring that it is the correct one, locating its potential owners, and if there are none, declaring the looted object to be heirless property.

What does one do with objects deemed heirless? Remember that heirless property is simply unclaimed property for which no owners have been found ---yet. Since there are no well-funded research organizations or institutions in the business of searching for these objects’ rightful owners, they remain to a large extent heirless, deprived of their history, their context and their identity.

For instance, Jewish museums are stocked with heirless objects, coming from communities that have been systematically erased from the face of the earth. But not all displaced objects in Jewish museums are heirless. The mission of Jewish museums is to safeguard these objects, not necessarily restitute them. Hence, when faced with a restitution claim, a Jewish museum is more likely to behave like most art museums by opposing the act of restitution which would require deaccessioning the claimed object from its collection.

Governments of nations that were subjected to the horrors of Nazi and Fascist policies and global war, hold untold numbers of objects which were “found” at war’s end.  So far, little to no information has been released which can help apprehend the true extent of this seventy-year old problem.

The Russian puzzle is the most egregious. So-called “trophy art” picked up by specialized Soviet military units in all territories that the Red Army “liberated” in the months before the end of WWII is stored in museums across the ex-Soviet Union. Most of the objects that the Red Army “repatriated” as compensation for Soviet losses are presumably concentrated in what is now the Russian Federation, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. But there is also looted cultural material belonging to exterminated Jewish communities in the custody of governments in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, to name a few.

In an ideal world, the most logical way to address the question of researching and documenting the complete history of cultural plunder between 1933 and 1945 is to orchestrate a massive inflow of research monies and establish an international research and documentation infrastructure. Only in this way can one address systematically the full scope of looted cultural heritage (outside of Judaica which has attracted significant attention over the past decades) of the Jewish people, identify the location of plundered objects, figure out which ones have still not been restituted, match them with their rightful owners. If there are none, then the question of heirless property comes into the picture.

A vast international, even transcontinental, network or infrastructure of research institutions facilitated and nurtured by a mix of government agencies, independent organizations, and academic centers across the Americas and Europe should coordinate this effort. This is not a one-or three-person job. In order to get a handle on what was stolen, where, when, by whom, sold and resold to whom and where and when, one needs a small army of intelligent, motivated, educated, trained, PAID, worker bees.

There is a strong likelihood that “heirless” objects having once belonged to Jewish owners before the Holocaust era ended up in the permanent collections of museums, be they State-controlled or privately owned.

How does one persuade these cultural institutions to deaccession heirless objects which they argue were acquired in good faith and have no owner?

How does one convince governments which control cultural institutions holding such objects to return them? And to whom? Even in Israel, this policy is controversial.

The solutions to the above have always been complicated and laced with political overtones. Art makes people irrational. For an institution to part with an object is fraught with strong emotions and potent defenses against such an act, even it is for a good cause, even if restitution through deaccession is meant to heal wounds and provide a small gesture towards an act of justice. It goes against the grain of museum practices worldwide to restitute.

To end on a less negative note, it is worth exploring the different ways that exist to restore a modicum of justice to the victims of cultural plunder. But those approaches need to be anchored in victims’ rights, not in private property law and antiquated notions of cultural patrimony. In and of itself, such an approach could open new doors on how to manage in a more ethical way tomorrow’s museums and the global art trade.

And above all, a massive amount of money is needed in order to rewrite the history of looted objects, return them to their rightful owners, and establish much better practices in the global art market, the museums that display objects, the galleries and auction houses that buy, display, and sell, and the collectors and dealers who do the same.

Higher ethics, stringent due diligence, thorough provenance research and true transparency, transparently clear (as opposed to less opaque), like a sheet of cellophane or saran wrap, your choice. That is the goal.