31 October 2017

Economics and plunder

by Marc Masurovsky

If you ever wonder how an economic analysis of “enemy” assets conducted by the German plundering agency—Einsatzstab Reichleiter Rosenberg [ERR]—can shape and refine its targeting decisions, consider the case of:

La Société auxiliaire pour le Commerce et l’Industrie, based at 29, rue de Berri, in Paris.

The name sounds innocuous enough, most likely an investment group run by wealthy shareholders. Who might they be?

-Société anonyme d’Etudes et de Participations Industrielles et commerciales, located at the same address as the Société auxiliaire.
-Maurice de Rothschild
-Edouard de Rothschild
-Henri de Rothschild
-Societe de Rothschild Freres, 21 rue Laffitte, Paris
-Guy de Rothschild
-Estate of Raba Deutsch
-Pierre de Gunzbourg
-Estate of Arthur Weisweiller
-Georgette Deutsch
-Edouard Esmond
-Estate of Robert de Gunzbourg
-Andre Goldet.

[Source: AJ 38/402-404 Commissariat General aux Questions Juives, in RG 43.023M US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Reel 72, Washington, DC]

The ERR and the Vichy government engaged in a shameless rivalry to plunder as best as possible the above shareholders of the innocuous-sounding Societe Auxiliaire as well as thousands of other Jews whose property and assets they coveted. The Rothschild family, its members, its relatives, close and distant, its business partners and associates, its friends, were all viewed as "plunderable" by the National Socialists and their local collaborators, especially the French anti-semites in Vichy and in the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives, the main anti-Jewish entity in charge of stripping every Jewish person on French territory of his or her property and livelihood.

Pierre de Gunzbourg and Edouard Esmond had the misfortune of living in the building requisitioned by the ERR as its headquarters in Paris, at 54, avenue d’Iena. Esmond was a special individual--a self-professed dandy, breeder and trainer of race horses and a permanent fixture at the race track and in a Rothschild tea party. His daughter, Diana Esmond, was a pioneering golf professional as well as a gifted artist. In fact, the vast majority of modern works stolen from Esmond's apartment in Paris were signed by his daughter.

At the end of WWII, Andre Goldet was the vice president of the American Joint Distribution Committee, one of the most important relief and humanitarian organizations operating in liberated territories of Western and Central Europe. Goldet also served as a senior official of the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), whose assets were thoroughly plundered, including its library containing at least 20,000 volumes of Hebraica, countless art works that the AIU had agreed to safeguard in its building for concerned owners fleeing Paris in advance of the arrival of the Germans. But that’s another story…

29 October 2017

The top 10 plundered art articles

by Marc Masurovsky

The plundered art blog was born without anyone noticing it in May 2010.  As so many of these ventures go, nothing much was done in the first six months until December 23, 2010, when two brief pieces appeared which summarized the birth of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and events leading up to its establishment in September 1997.  On Christmas Eve 2010, perhaps on a lark, I wrote a review of “The Night of The Generals”, a campy film about anti-Hitler stirrings amongst the German general staff. My way of dipping my pinky toe in the murky waters of blogging.

2011 is when the juices began to flow and HARPs’ blog, plundered art, started to take shape.  For those of you who operate blogs on your own time, ad-free, with no staff other than yourselves, you know how much emotional and physical energy is required to keep such an adventure from becoming cybernetic driftwood and another digital artifact floating across the Internet ether.

Fast forward to October 29, 2017.

Time to take stock of the past six years, 307 articles later, all devoted in some fashion or form, directly, indirectly, to the broad topic of cultural plunder in the context of genocide, the challenges implicit in the identification and recovery of looted objects found in public and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Many articles were written out of spite, despair, impatience, irritation, annoyance, and also out of a genuine desire to inform and to share some knowledge about events that transpired more than 75 years ago and continue to haunt us today, should you ever be paying attention to them.

Politics permeate the way that we view art, and in particular art with problematic histories. This is where provenance enters into the discussion; a word that I never paid attention to until the Schiele scandalof late 1997, early 1998, grabbed headlines in New York and Vienna, shaking the art world because New York city policemen dared enter the temple of art and money that is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), to remove from it two paintings executed by the bad boy of Vienna, Egon Schiele, that were suspected of having been plundered in the aftermath of the March 1938 Anschluss from two Jewish owners, victimized by the Nazis.

Politics inform the stories underlying countless numbers of works and objects of art, because history has a nasty way of interfering with their peregrinations through time and space, from the moment they exit the artist’s studio to the moment that they adorn the wall of a living room, dining room, bedroom or languish as ripening investments in freeport bunkers located in “neutral” territories like Switzerland, Singapore, and god knows where else, out of reach, out of mind, lost to the world.

Enough of this rhetoric.

It is my pleasure to present to you the top 10 articles which have graced the virtual pages of the “plundered art” blog. In honor of David Letterman, we will count them down in reverse order from 10 to 1.

[drum roll]

Deconstructing Aphrodite, published on January 28, 2012
ERR database-Georges Bernheim, published on April 2011
Franz Marc's "The large blue horses," published on January 5, 2012

Interestingly enough, the three top articles published by plundered art each pertain to a work of art, produced by Franz Marc, Jacopo Zucchi, and Paul Klee.

Let's hear it for.....

“The red horses”, by Franz Marc, published on January 3, 2012
Jacopo Zucchi, “the bath of Bathsheba”, published on August 2, 2011

And the all-time winner which has outpaced its rivals in no uncertain terms like a steed racing across the finish line at a race track of your choosing...

[extra drum rolls]

Angelus Novus, Angel of History, by Paul Klee, published on February 26, 2013

Last thoughts before calling it a day:

It gives me hope, in these times of grave uncertainties where the word “ethics” appears to have been gutted of any meaning, where it apparently is still ok to steal thy neighbor’s property because you are likely not to get caught—plunder, once again, is the only crime against humanity that pays for itself— that a savant blend of art, history, politics, war, justice, and ethics, still arouses interest and even passion amongst you out there, yes, you who are spread out across the seven seas and every continent, encompassing more than 60 countries—yes, that is the breadth of our readership, however impossible it is to verify whether you are mere digital echoes resulting from spam assaults or unsuccessful hacks (as in the Russian case), or men and women of all ages (yes, we do have readers who are in high school) who have expressed an interest in the fate of art objects misappropriated during acts of mass conflict and genocide, and which the art market and privately owned as well as government-run museums refuse to return to their rightful owners for a variety of inexplicable reasons. It is for you, the reader, that this blog exists.

18 October 2017

Different shades of recovery

by Marc Masurovsky

The process of recovery of looted cultural, artistic and religious objects is daunting for several reasons:

If action is not taken right away to recover a looted object, it becomes exponentially difficult to identify its current location. In the case of losses during the Third Reich, “recovery” was an absurd notion since the perpetrators of the thefts controlled the reins of political, legal, and economic power. Hence, the process of tracing the object could only occur after a regime change and with rules in place that would facilitate such searches. Moreover, if the works confiscated or plundered by the Nazi regime ended up in neighboring countries, what rights did the claimants have to recover such works, since Nazi Germany was a recognized nation in the community of nations, for better or for worse? What rights do they have now? Since most of the domestic losses suffered by Jews living in Germany were State-sponsored, there was no mechanism in place in other nations to deem the actions of the Nazi state illegal and the confiscated property subject to restitution. Therefore, if you lost your property in 1934 and if you survived all of the subsequent events provoked by the Nazis’ fury against the Jews and others, you would have to wait for at least 12 years to assert a claim of restitution.

If your missing object is located in the hands of a new owner, regardless of how that person or institution acquired the victims’ property, the laws governing property rights and title to “legally acquired” property prevent the plundered owner from obtaining restitution of his/her looted property without going through a complex tangle of legal and political maneuvers. In the absence of explicit mechanisms put in place by the national governments of nations where such looted objects have ended up, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover them. This state of affairs endures to this day and has been a continual source of frustration for victims of plunder with minimal accommodations made by governments and courts to facilitate the process of recovery.

If the looted object is declared part of the cultural patrimony of the nation from where it ended up, the recovery process involves a direct negotiation with that nation’s government, a very laborious discussion which usually ends in utter failure. What is the word of a dispossessed Jewish owner against that of an official who upholds the notion of cultural patrimony and inalienability of art objects located in State collections, whether those objects were looted during genocidal acts? Culpable countries hiding behind such imperialistic arguments are: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, to cite the worst, Eastern European nations, all of the nations that once formed the Soviet Union.

When source nations seek the return of their looted patrimony which usually consists of antiquities illegally extracted from archaeological sites or illegally removed from religious and other sacred edifices, the wait can last for an eternity; it can also be circumscribed to anywhere from a year to several decades if the aggrieved nation is willing to compromise, accept trade offs like offer commercial advantages to the withholding nation, or agree to symbolic returns with a promise never to come back and ask for anymore as in the case of South Korea and the shabby treatment it received from France over a set of priceless manuscripts.

Aggrieved source nations include but are not limited to Greece, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Mali.

In other words, we have not made much progress in the past several decades. As provenance continues to become optional in art market transactions and most nations do not encourage their cultural institutions to be more forthcoming in publicizing the history of the objects that are part of their “patrimony,” nothing short of a cultural revolution will sway them to change course and become, god forbid, ethical.

15 October 2017

So I Have Been Thinking…

[Note: The following text is a reaction/thought piece to a recent query. Since this blog page is about thinking, these are things to think about. The raising of questions can be as important as having absolute answers.]

by Ori Z. Soltes

A recent question prompts me to think: When Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt found herself in Auschwitz as a 17-year old, she probably did not expect her or her mother to survive (her father and fiance did not). But fortunately not only did she have significant talent as an artist but in an odd turn of fate, Josef Mengele, the notorious primary physician-in-residence at the camp, noted for his horrific experiments on his limitless supply of patients, had an interest in her art. Not because he was an art devotee, mind you—although many of the Nazi brass were, infamously enjoying Beethoven by night while beating prisoners to death by day, or ingathering Rembrandts and declaiming Schiller’s poetry in between consigning victims to the gas chambers. No, Mengele’s interest was more practical: he felt that the black and white photographic possibilities available to him could not capture the emotion sliding across the faces of his patients, to say nothing of their skin tones, and he hoped that Dina’s portraits of these victims (particularly Roma victims) would serve that purpose. Apparently they did—well enough, in any case, for her to use her skill as a bargaining chip not only for her own survival but that of her mother.

By now Dina Gottliebova’s story is known to some: that she came to the United States, ending up in California where she also married a fellow artist, Art Babbitt, and both of them had successful careers as cartoonists. It was only many decades after the war, when the issue not only of the Holocaust but of Nazi-plundered art surfaced in a world that had been in a deep slumber regarding such issues, that Gottliebova Babbitt began to wonder if those portraits had survived. It turns out that seven of them had. She sustained a long legal fight with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum authorities regarding ownership of the works—at one point the director of the museum opined that the real owner was Mengele, since he commissioned and, one might say, paid for them. That Director was fired shortly thereafter, but in the end little satisfaction for Gottliebova Babbitt was achieved by the time of her death from cancer in 2009.

The Museum refused restitution, although they required her authorizing signature every time one of these images was used. They also offered her financial compensation, which she refused, but instead asked that the money the museum paid for the right to exhibit the works be donated to organizations that assist the Roma. To me the issue has always seemed almost uniquely soluble among the myriad issues that form part of the ongoing saga of Nazi-plundered art and its restitution or non-restitution. Since there are multiple works in this case—seven, to repeat—it seems to me that they could be shared between the artist and the museum, with perfect copies of those in the hands of the one while the originals are in the hands of the other (the technology of this is a no-brainer in this day and age)—cycling them every, say, three or five years, so that both sides are always in possession of three (or four) and over a complete cycle each side has had possession of all of them.

I propose this, since the most substantial ground upon which the Museum stands in refusing restitution is that they require the images as part of the exhibition-cum-educational program in which they are always engaged. So in fact they would always have some, just not all of them in their possession. (And do they exhibit all seven at once anyway? No paper conservator would advise that). Were there only one of these paintings I admit that the solution would be more difficult—although one could even propose a similar back-and-forth between original and copy over a prescribed period of time with a single work at issue. In any case, the question of the artist’s rights as opposed to an educational institution’s rights remains problematic—and it does not become simpler once the artist is gone and the question moves on toward the artist’s survivors. And then the issue of how many survivors and how many works of art muddies things further. I don’t claim to have a one-size-fits-all answer to the question—appropriately enough, since time is continuing to demonstrate that the number of Holocaust “stories”—whether regarding art of other matters—is endless.

But the question pushes my thoughts in two further, somewhat related directions. One is this: Recently a colleague from Iraq—who manages to continue her work, with little pay under unimaginably difficult conditions, of trying to document and protect all of the antiquities that are at risk in that country the tearing to shreds of which was facilitated by our own country—asked one of my American colleagues: “why don’t you return our material?” Having asserted that “you” should not include him, but the American government, he also clarified what she meant by “our material.” As some may know, our troops were empowered to remove, among other things, many objects relevant to the long-gone Jewish community from Baghdad. These are mostly manuscript-type material, documents, mostly only one or two centuries old, although the Jewish community in Iraq traces itself back to the Judaean exile following the Babylonian destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE.

I myself got to see this material. From the description leading to what I saw in our National Archives I expected thousand-year-old Torah scrolls, at least, and was sort of disappointed, frankly, that the collection was so much tamer than I had hoped. On the other hand, the work being done by the archives’ conservationists was extraordinary—spectacular, really—and there is something enormously intriguing even about report cards from schools of a few generations ago, with their names, grades, comments and photos of the students; it brings to life a community that has since vanished in a unique manner.

So what was my Iraqi colleague’s beef? That these documents are part of state-owned material, kept and carefully preserved until the Americans swept in and carried them off. The American claim—including certain important members of the American Jewish community—is that this material records a community that, mostly gone, is and will further be forgotten if we don’t preserve its memory by adequately conserving, protecting and presumably at some point displaying the documents (here’s a question: when? where?). The implication is, of course, that none of these activities was happening or can happen in Iraq.

My colleague disagrees: the documents were being cared for by the state, by dedicated state employees like her, because they recognize the importance of Jewish communities in the history of Iraq, and how important it is to preserve that part of their history—and not just that part represented by substantial ancient monuments. So we find ourselves in the crossfire of a question parallel (not identical, for various reasons) to that raised by Gottliebova Babbitt’s paintings and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Who owns this odd collection of “Judaica” since there is no longer a Jewish community in Iraq? That question cannot be disentangled from the question of who is best equipped to preserve and display these items.

We have, of course, loaded the dice by tearing apart that country, but the amazing thing is that there continue to be people like this colleague who continue to do their preservationist jobs. So if we refuse to return the material to the Iraqis, are we merely being the British Museum redux vis-à-vis the Parthenon Marbles: asserting with the superiority of a colonial power that we can take care of their heritage better than the natives can? Could we return some of it and mount a serious exhibit on the Jewish community of part of it—or an exhibit of all of it that travels for a few years before the whole thing goes back to a Baghdad where we even help assure that adequate facilities are there to receive it? I think once more of a parallel: we Americans exhibited art from Germany after the war, and when some members of the government and art community wanted us to keep it, other, wiser voices prevailed, arguing that if we did that, we would be no better than the German art-plunderers—or, as the Cold War took shape, the Soviet Red Army Trophy Squad thieves.

We always come back to the first question: what are we-as humans, as Americans, as whatever subsets of either of those categories we want to throw into the rhetorical hopper? And that leads me to a second offshoot of the Gottliebova-Babbitt question that is also very current, albeit having nothing to do with either the Holocaust or art plunder, but having everything to do with the role of art as an educational instrument—which was the main basis for the Museum’s argument against the artist’s claim for restitution. I recently led a study tour to Russia, and my group and I visited a number of smaller towns not far from Moscow—part of what is known as the “Golden Ring” for their importance with regard to churches, cathedrals, monasteries and kremlins—including Suzdal, Vladimir, Yaroslavl and a few others. I was struck in these places how—in spite of the sense one received in the early 1990s of a tearing down of public monuments; statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in particular; in a repudiation of nearly 75 years of Soviet history and oppression—there remained in very town, in the main square, some statue of Lenin, standing, declaiming, striding.

It was clear—and I discussed this with local guides and others—that a decision was made to keep these images intact, since they are part of the history of Russia, and not to tear them all down as symbols of an oppressive Soviet regime that ruled Russia for a period of time. It is essential that people remain aware of their history—the bad parts so that they are not repeated, the good parts so that they may be emulated. This is an idea particularly connected to a dictum associated with the philosopher Santayana, and the Russians seem in this case to get the idea.

Should we not get it, as well? I could not be more disgusted by the American history of slavery or the recent extraordinary upsurging reminder that racism, antisemitism and a host of other forms of bigotry still prevail in our country. But I strongly believe that tearing down public statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is not only not the answer, it runs contrary to the educational potential of art, especially public art. Do we, by the way, also tear down statues of other slave owners, like Washington and Jefferson? Or do we use all of these images as a stepping-off point to remind and educate ourselves to what we were when not at our best and to what we still need to do to make ourselves better—as individuals, as communities, and as a country?

Was Lee’s sin that he owned slaves or that he saw Virginia first and the Federal Union second—or both? The point is: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we need to ask about these things, try to understand them and use them to better our world. Instead of tearing down or covering up these statues, or carting them off to museums, why not use them as the basis for an annual, dynamic program (have schoolkids take part in a kind of American Passion Play!) in which the story of what was wrong—and also what was right—about these people will encourage us to work actively to improve our communities.