16 June 2018

"Le premier jour de printemps à Moret", by Alfred Sisley--Part Two

by Marc Masurovsky
“Frühlingslandschaft”
The Impressionist painter, Alfred Sisley, produced “Le premier jour de printemps à Moret” in 1889, an oil on canvas measuring 46,2 x 56 cm, signed and dated “Sisley. 89” on the lower left of the painting. The first name which appears on the provenance of the painting in the Christie’s sale listing for November 6, 2008, is “Camentron” with no date of acquisition.  There was a “Galerie Martin Camentron” in Paris in the 1890s which acquired a number of Sisley paintings. There was also a “collection Camentron” in which one could find a number of paintings by Sisley. 

The famed “Galerie Durand-Ruel” acquired “Le premier jour de printemps à Moret” in 1892 from Camentron, one of several that the gallery acquired, as attested by the provenance of a Sisley painting at the Musée d’Orsay.

Thirty years elapsed before Mr. Perdoux allegedly acquired the Sisley painting. There is nothing to indicate that he bought it from Durand-Ruel. This could be the same Perdoux as Yves Perdoux, a notorious Parisian art dealer who collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation of France and denounced the locations of a number of Jewish-owned art collections, including that of Paul Rosenberg.

The Lindon family name does not appear in the Christie's provenance of this painting. At some point, the Wildenstein gallery in Paris came into possession of the painting. If one did not know that Lindon was associated with the Sisley painting, it would be impossible to deduce exactly when Wildenstein bought the painting—before, during or after WWII. On or about 1972, “the present owner” of the painting purchased “Le premier jour de printemps à Moret” and brought it to market at Christie’s on November 6, 2008 where Alain Dreyfus acquired it for 338,500 dollars.

So, what happened between Perdoux and Wildenstein?

The theft

Months after the German invasion of France in June 1940, the Lindenbaum/Lindon collection was confiscated and sent to the Jeu de Paume on December 10, 1940.   It included five paintings by Sisley which had been stored in a vault at the Chase Safe Deposit Company at 41, rue Cambon in Paris, until their removal by the German financial police agents with the Devisenschutzkommando (DSK) on December 5, 1940. The inventory drawn up by the DSK agents indicated a painting by Sisley 
excerpt from the DSK inventory
entitled “Frühling in Moret”. The initial inventory drawn up when the Lindenbaum collection first entered the Jeu de Paume in December 1940 showed a painting by Sisley with the following title: “Frühlingslandschaft mit blühenden Ostbäumen”, with a lower left signature and the date “89”. 

The ERR personnel at the Jeu de Paume gave the Sisley painting the title of “Frühlingslandschaft” (Spring landscape) and the number "Li 56"; it described the painting as a “View into a meadow landscape with still bare fruit trees, poplars and bushes. In the background a human figure”.
ERR card for Li 56



In early January 1943, a new inventory of the Lindenbaum collection was drawn up under the supervision of Dr. Schiedlausky, who was the principal manager of the ERR depot of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria near the town of Hohenschwangau close to Fussen. However a number of Impressionist and other modern works from the Lindenbaum collection remained at the Jeu de Paume in German-occupied Paris and were inventoried there on July 17, 1942 by Dr. Tomforde, one of the main art historians and cataloguers of confiscated collections working for the ERR in Paris. In May 1944, Dr. von Ingram working with Schiedlausky completed the Lindenbaum inventory at Neuschwanstein, including three Sisley paintings slated to be exchanged by the German dealer and agent, Gustav Rochlitz, on Goering’s initiative. Those paintings had been swapped in Paris for a painting by Titian, entitled “Portrait of a young lady” on July 9, 1941. Li 56, “Frühlingslandschaft” remained with Gustav Rochlitz who shipped it to his storage facility in Mühlhofen near Meersburg in southern Bavaria along the shores of Lake Constanz. A handwritten note from a postwar Bavarian official confirmed this possibility.



On September 25, 1945, Alfred Lindon submitted a “final list” of works of art plundered from the vault he had rented at the Chase Safe Deposit Company at 41, rue Cambon before the Germans’ arrival in the French capital. Incidentally, he named the Sisley painting “Sous-bois/printemps rose” and Mr. Lindon indicated that it had been acquired at Durand-Ruel.  Hence, when filling out the provenance advertised by Christie’s in November 2008, one could postulate the following:

Camentron, Paris
Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the above in April 1892)
Alfred Lindon?
Where does that put Mr. Perdoux (acquired from the above, November 1923)?

Could the 1923 Perdoux reference be a falsehood? If, as Mr. Lindon indicates on his inventory of works lost as a result of looting of the family vault at Chase Safe Deposit Company, he had bought the Sisley from Durand-Ruel, this would throw into question the mention of Perdoux in the provenance supplied to Christie’s. This would not be the first time that a provenance contained fictitious or misleading information. One possibility is that Alfred Lindon acquired the Sisley painting in November 1923 and that Yves Perdoux, if it is him, may have been involved in the recycling of the painting during WWII. He worked with various collaborationist art dealers, in particular Raphael Gérard, to whom he had sold numerous looted objects between 1940 and 1944. Anything is possible…

As a result of an exchange policy approved by the ERR and Hermann Goering, modern paintings confiscated from Jewish collectors were offered to French, Swiss, Belgian, Dutch, Italian, and German art dealers in exchange for Old Masters which could grace the collections of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering. Under exchange (Tausch) No. 10 of July 9, 1941, a number of Lindenbaum paintings, including the Sisley painting in question were offered to Gustav Rochlitz in exchange for a Titian painting. According to Rochlitz’s testimony to the Allies after WWII, he shipped the Sisley and many other paintings he had obtained on the Paris art market, to a storage place that he managed at Mühlhofen near Meesburg in southern Bavaria, along the northern shore of Lake Constanz. Rochlitz misrepresented many of his transactions to Allied interrogators. Therefore, it would not be surprising if the Sisley in question had remained in Paris and been sold or consigned for sale with collaborationists like Yves Perdoux or Raphael Gérard.

In sum, the chain of ownership for the Sisley painting was broken on December 5, 1940. Its post-confiscation disappearance on the Paris art market made it impossible for French and Allied officials to recover the painting and return it to the Lindon family. Knowledge of these illicit market activities was not well-known in the postwar years, except by those who engaged in them, those who benefited from them, and some of the victims who investigated the fate of their lost cultural assets. 

The postwar French directory of looted cultural assets  known as Répertoire des biens spoliés (RBS) includes several paintings by Sisley which include the word “printemps” (spring/Frühling), one of the titles ascribed to the painting by Alfred Lindon, which point to two owners, the estate of Mrs. Berthe Propper and Mr. Lindon. A handwritten annotation in the 1947 RBS catalogue points to the fact that the French government’s investigative file on the whereabouts of the painting was closed on August 5, 1961, an administrative procedure indicating that the French government no longer considered the location of the painting as feasible. In these instances, government officials would tell claimants that they should accept instead a compensatory package from the German government for their losses, 16 years after the end of WWII. Whether or not the Lindon family continued to search for the painting is a question that needs an answer.
crossed-out mention of "Le Printemps" in RBS
Works by Alfred Sisley in lost art databases

www.lootedart.com

The database of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE) includes three paintings by Sisley with the word “Spring”, none of which are ascribed to Alfred Lindon.

Lostart.de

The database of looted cultural assets which is managed by the German Lost Art Foundation contains 22 paintings by Alfred Sisley, none of which correspond to the Alfred Lindon painting.

Art Loss Register (ALR)

It’s impossible to know what information on the Sisley the London-based Art Loss Register holds since it is a proprietary database. In general, auction houses and art dealers routinely submit to ALR information on objects on consignment for sale in order to identify any potential problems with title. 

Tentative conclusion
Once Alfred Lindon became dispossessed of the painting on December 5, 1940, the painting became a looted work of art subject to restitution which required it to be returned to its rightful owner. Since it was not located at the end of WWII or thereafter, the painting’s postwar itinerary is illegal. Any transfer of title from one possessor  to the next since 1940 was illegal and amounted to resale and possession of stolen property.  Wildenstein & Cie, one-time owner of the Sisley painting, has contributed to the postwar problem surrounding this painting.

An art dealer's responsibility compels him/her to do systematic due diligence on every object which he/she acquires, sells, or borrows. It does not matter if the object is being offered for sale by an auction house or a gallery or a museum or another art dealer or a private individual. That is his/her professional and ethical responsibility. To treat auction houses differently from other market actors is frankly puzzling and illogical.

It is my frank opinion that if Mondex succeeds in bringing Christie's to heel over the Sisley painting, it will not only undermine one of the more successful restitution experiments in the private art market but also raise serious concerns about the actual meaning of restitution of works and objects of art plundered during the Nazi years by reducing it to a mercenary hunt for cash at whatever the cost. That, frankly, is unethical.  I honestly hope that all parties come to their senses and seek some other form of solution which will benefit the Lindon family, first and foremost.

Additional notes

Titles

Le premier jour de printemps à Moret” by Alfred Sisley, painted in 1889, ended up in the possession of Alfred Lindenbaum/Lindon. The painting, before and after its racially-motivated confiscation, has had different titles prior to its purchase in 2008 by Alain Dreyfus:

“Printemps”
“Sous-bois/printemps rose”
“Frühlingslandschaft”
“Frühlingslandschaft mit blühenden Ostbäumen”
“Frühling in Moret”

Markings

Usually, the ERR staff wrote or stenciled on the back of works it confiscated, especially paintings, the alpha-numeric code that they assigned to the items they catalogued at the Jeu de Paume. Those markings would have been the obvious tip-off that the painting had been stolen during the German occupation of Paris. Was the painting restretched, reframed? Were the markings erased?  If so, who would have stripped the painting down of obvious markings left by the ERR?

Sources:

Bundesarchiv, B323/277 Koblenz, Germany
209SUP 2, 209SUP 603, French Foreign Affairs Ministry Archives, La Courneuve, France
RG 260 M1943 Reel 12, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

15 June 2018

"Premier jour de printemps à Moret" by Alfred Sisley--Part One

by Marc Masurovsky

Premier jour de printemps à Moret, by Alfed Sisley
courtesy of Le Monde
On May 25, 2018, a story broke in “L’Alsace”, a regional French newspaper, regarding a notable from Mulhouse, Alain Dreyfus, well-known art dealer and collector who plies his trade across the border in Basel, Switzerland.  According to the Alsatian newspaper, Mr. Dreyfus is all up in arms over a painting by Alfred Sisley, “Premier jour de printemps à Moret,” which the Impressionist artist produced in 1889. Dreyfus acquired it at Christie’s in New York on November 6, 2008, without giving it much thought since, in his own words, “when you go to an auction sale, you don’t check anything because you assume that everything has been checked.” So much for due diligence.

At some point in 2016, according to Mr. Dreyfus as reported in “L’Alsace”, a Toronto-based company, Mondex, contacted him to let him know that the Sisley in question was a looted painting which had once belonged to a French Jewish family by the name of Lindenbaum or Lindon, and that the Nazis had stolen the painting during the German occupation of France. Although dismayed at the news, he informed the Canadians that he would restitute the painting as long as Christie’s reimbursed him for the money spent in 2008 at the New York sale. Through his lawyers, Dreyfus laid out his position: either Christie’s indemnifies the family and he keeps the painting, or he restitutes the painting and Christie’s pays him back.

In 2017, one of the Lindon family heirs contacted Mr. Dreyfus by mail to confirm that he still had the painting. Then, he found out that the Lindon heir turned around and sued Christie’s. Meanwhile, the Swiss police has sequestered the painting until the issue is resolved. Dreyfus has since sent an invoice to the Christie’s office in Zurich for 700,000 euros, although he paid 338,500 dollars for the painting in 2008. His excuse for asking double the price of the painting? Christie’s allegedly pocketed 694 million euros from a recent Rockefeller sale. Hence, his bill represents  the equivalent of pocket change.  Mr. Dreyfus is clearly incensed and fuming, in a way that few art dealers are when faced with a restitution claim resulting from an auction sale.

According to a May 28, 2018, article which appeared in “Le Monde,” the main critique leveled at Christie’s is that it could not have ignored the looted history of the painting since it has an internal section focused on looted art. That critique was leveled by Denis Lindon, 91 year old grandson of the plundered victim, Alfred Lindon.

In a May 31, 2018, article, artnet.com quoted James Palmer of Mondex, who confirmed that the Sisley painting had been confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) “and passed through the hands of Hermann Goering.” As supporting evidence, a document produced by the ERR was reproduced in the artnet piece; that document came from the Database of Art objects that transited through the Jeu de Paume (better known as the ERR database). One might speculate that the information contained in that database validated Mondex’s claim of an act of plunder perpetrated against the Lindenbaum/Lindon family for the painting in question.  Incidentally, the ERR database was not publicly accessible in 2008. Hence, Christie’s could not have consulted it. The few art looting databases in existence at the time would have been short on specifics regarding the Lindon losses or were proprietary databases whose content is impossible to verify for accuracy and reliability.

Mr. Palmer stepped up his attack against Christie’s by stating that “buying from auction houses presents significant risks” going as far as asserting that the “auction house should indemnify” the buyer “if a claim is ever made in the future,” that is to say, if the evidence of theft escaped the research efforts of the auction house prior to sale.  In other words, the behavior of Mr. Dreyfus appears to echo the Mondex stance against Christie’s and, more generally, against all auction houses.

However, Nicholas O’Donnell, an art restitution attorney based in Boston, Massachusetts, countered that there was no indication of any suspicion regarding the painting on the face of the provenance that Christie’s was given for the Sisley work, a view that James Palmer, of Mondex, contests. According to a New York Times report dated June 3, 2018, Palmer notified Monica Dugot, director of restitution at Christie’s that a review of a “directory of looted items published in France in 1947” would have yielded several looted Sisley works with the word “spring” in their title.  The "directory" which Mr. Palmer has alluded to is the "Répertoire des biens spoliés” which can be downloaded from a French government website.

In sum, the fight over the Lindon Sisley painting has turned into an unfortunate mess with an auction house, Christie’s, caught between a determined “art recovery business”, Mondex, an incensed art dealer, Mr. Alain Dreyfus, and a claimant, Mr. Denis Lindon, all convinced that Christie’s did not exercise sufficient due diligence to identify a looted work of art belonging to the Lindon family.

The fact that all guns are pointed at Christie’s in a very complex game of who should have known what and when regarding the flawed ownership history of “Premier jour de printemps à Moret,” by Alfred Sisley, begs for clarification and a more sober examination of the facts.

As the old saw goes, “the facts, nothing but the facts.” In Part II, let’s take a look at the hard facts and ask another set of questions which might put this entire kerfuffle into perspective. Indeed, there is a looted painting that needs to be restituted to the Lindon family. But where did the problem originate and who stands to benefit from this international three-ring circus?

A "Goering bible" with a provenance full of holes

by Marc Masurovsky

In April 2018, a Bible (Tanach) printed in the 1630s in Amsterdam by Menasseh ben Israel, including Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, and containing 369 “leaves”, sold for 12,300 US dollars, as lot Nr. 133 at Kedem Auction House, in business in Jerusalem since 2008. That sale would be uneventful except for the fact that this particular Bible was removed from the home of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in the Bavarian Alps by French troops.

According to Kedem, this bible bears an inscription stamp inside it which tells us that the Second [French] Armored Division took possession of this artifact after some of its members “broke into” Goering’s compound near Berchtesgaden in early May 1945. The French inscription carries a date of removal, May 4, 1945. According to Kedem’s proud description of this unique item, Goering’s residence and nearby facilities were looted by Allied soldiers following the departure of the SS. No comment.

The provenance supplied by Kedem indicates the following list of owners:

Dr. J. N. Pellieux, Beaugency, France

Confiscated in 1940

Hermann Goering

With a French pastor attached to the Second Armored Division

Gift to Dr. Rosenfeld, London, by said pastor, 2005

The Israel National News edition of April 11, 2018, informs us that the said French pastor was an Army chaplain working with the Red Cross and that the bible in question had been discovered “in recent days.”

The French Jewish online emagazine, “Alliance,” repeated everything that the Israel National News had indicated about the bible but was kind enough to supply a photograph of the actual item.

According to an April 17, 2018, Times of Israel report on this “Goering Bible”, Dr. J. N. Pellieux was a Jewish doctor from whom the Bible in question was stolen. Unfortunately, the journalist for the Times of Israel dated the German invasion of France to 1945! A "fake news" fact which should have called into question the entire story, no?

It’s arduous to make sense of complex events like cultural plunder.  Nowadays, it goes without saying that journalists--and auctioneers looking for a bang for their buck!--do not spend enough time researching facts in order to help readers understand the twisted details surrounding a looted object’s tortured history which preceded its grateful discovery, in this case, through the art market.

A 60 minute "Google" search adventure yielded the following information:
city hall of Beaugency

1/ Beaugency is a small town in the French “département” of the Loiret which sits southwest of Orléans and 155 kilometers from Paris or a clean two hour drive from Beaugency to the French capital.

2/ How about Dr. J. N. Pellieux? According to a number of Israeli news outlets, Dr. Pellieux was a Jewish doctor. Can that be verified? A quick “Google” search creates more puzzlement than clarity. The Pellieux name is well-known in Beaugency. As far back as the late 18th century, a Mr. Pellieux, ainé, was the town historian. He was also referred to as “docteur Pellieux” being an accomplished medical doctor. Mr. Pellieux published in 1805 an “Essai historique sur la ville de Beaugency et ses environs” which was lauded as a thorough and incisive piece of research.

In fact, Dr. J. N. Pellieux was none other than Dr. Jacques-Nicolas Pellieux (1750-1832), who lived in Beaugency as a distinguished local scholar and notable. One of his achievements was to have partaken in the American War of Independence across the Atlantic Ocean. After the French revolution, Pellieux served for a time as deputy mayor of Beaugency.

In sum, the mystery of the “Goering Bible” remains whole. Dr. Pellieux was not a Jewish doctor. His bible meandered about and most likely ended up in a Jewish collection somewhere between Beaugency and Paris, where the most likely candidate to have plundered it would have been the specialized library looting units of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). There is no other way for Hermann Goering to have gained access to that 17th century bible unless it had come from the ERR.

Last but not least, the Israeli press was apparently unimpressed by the acts of plunder performed, in this instance, by French troops at Goering’s Bavarian dacha. Could it be that our Israeli friends condone plunder by military elements? Or is this another case of “rescue” by Allied forces?

14 June 2018

"Portrait of Mary Robinson," by Joshua Reynolds

by Angelina Giovani
edited by Marc Masurovsky

Mary Robinson was one of the most famous actresses of the 18th century, who left behind a large number of portraits. The culmination of Mary’s fame came after her performance as Perdita, in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which captured the heart of George, Prince of Wales, who fell madly in love with her. Hence, the name Perdita became permanently linked to her own and she came to be known as Mary ‘Perdita” Robinson. Among the many artists who painted her portrait, the most notable is without a doubt Sir Joshua Reynolds. As his diary indicates, the artist made fourteen appointments for the actress to sit for him, resulting in at least five versions of the painting, all very similar to each other in both style and composition, the two main versions mirroring each other and seeming to differ only in the position of the hands or the feathers. The earliest version of the painting, which was purchased by Baroness Edmond de Rothschild, is the one now in the Waddesdon Collection.

A well-established Paris-based French art dealer and collector, René Gimpel, acquired one of Reynolds’ versions of “Portrait of Mary Robinson” and appears to have placed the work in a storage unit at Garde-Meubles Robinot Frères, 86, boulevard Garibaldi, in Paris. During the German occupation of France, after Gimpel had fled to the south of France before being denounced, arrested and deported to Sachsenhausen, the entire content of his “garde-meubles” was confiscated by agents of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), operating under the aegis of the Mobel-Aktion [M-Aktion] agency, responsible for emptying out Jewish-owned apartments and storage units in German-occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The second volume of the Algernon Graves and W. V. Cronin catalogue raisonné of the works of Joshua Reynolds lists five versions of the “Portrait of Mary Robinson” or Mrs. “Perdita” Robinson. Catalogue entry (nr. 832) might be Gimpel’s painting, since the other remaining versions produced by Reynolds can be traced to British and American collections with no noticeable provenance gaps.

Entry Nr. 832 reads:

“ROBINSON, Mrs. Mary; Half length, panel 29 1/2 x 24 1/2 in.; Nearly full faced; large black hat, white feather; dark dress; white lace scarf; red curtain background. Exhibited: Royal Academy, 1883, No. 274, by Colonel W. L. Grant.” The catalogue for the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1883 does not list the full name of Colonel Grant, the 1883 owner, hence it still remains unknown how he acquired it and when he sold it.

The above catalogue description mirrors the one published in the first edition of the Graves and Cronin catalogue raisonné in 1899. At some point between 1970 and 1973, the art historian Ellis Waterhouse, while serving as acting director of the “Paul Mellon Centre for British Studies” in London, edited the Graves & Cronin catalogue with extensive annotations. Waterhouse made comments and corrections to all of the versions of the Portrait of Mrs. Robinson.

Waterhouse noted that the panel “Portrait of Mrs. Robinson” was in the Collection of Pierre Bordeaux-Groult. In the revised edition of the catalogue raisonné which appeared in the late 1980s, entry (nr. 1530) has been corrected as follows:

“Robinson, Mary (1758-1800)
Untraced
On Wood(EKW/G&C)
Provenance: Pierre Bordeaux-Groult, Paris, 1967 (PMC: Waterhouse files); untraced since.”

A review of the Waterhouse files reveals that one of the copies of Mrs. Robinson, attributed to the Studio of Reynolds, was in the collection of E. C. Bacon, Thonak, in 1941. Below that, a note in pencil reads: “The original in Jean Groult Coll. Paris” and it is followed by a year. The file makes no reference to Pierre Bordeaux-Groult. Since the year has been transcribed to be 1967, we might assume that the authors believed it more likely for the work to be with Pierre Bordeaux-Groult, since Jean had passed away in 1951. But a closer examination of the numbers actually suggests that the date could very well be 1917, which makes better sense in relation to the Waterhouse original file.

How and when the painting, if it is the same one, went from Groult to Rene Gimpel is unknown. Meanwhile, Gimpel’s “Portrait of Mary Robinson” has never been found and his heirs still have not recovered it as a WWII Holocaust-related loss.

07 June 2018

Revisiting the WWII looted gold issue

by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note: this brief expose was drafted in 2000 as part of the research being conducted at the Presidential Advisory Commission for Holocaust-era Assets (1999-2000).  All of the documents produced by the so-called Gold Team of the PCHA are available for consultation at the William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, AK.]

The US purchased gold at $35 per troy ounce from 1934 to 1968. The US sold gold during that period at $35 per troy ounce. The main instrumentality through which the US purchased gold was the Exchange Stabilization Fund.

The Exchange Stabilization Fund was established in 1934 under the Gold Reserve Act. The Secretary of the Treasury had exclusive control over the Exchange Stabilization Fund. The only official to whom the Secretary of the Treasury had to answer to for America’s gold policy was the President of the United States. Together, these two individuals shared responsibility for gold bought and sold by the United States government through the Exchange Stabilization Fund. Based on the little evidence that we have seen so far, the President was kept apprised of the evolution of US gold policy, and of gold movements in other parts of the world.

The US government displayed little concern between 1934 and 1968 for the origin of the gold that it purchased from foreign central banks. A handful of officials, however, went on record from the late 1930s to the late 1950s to criticize the absence of an official screening policy of these gold inflows. Before the entry of the United States in the Second World War in December 1941, these officials focused their concerns on whether the United States should accept gold originating from German, Italian, and Japanese mints or gold sold by Germany, Italy, and Japan, that may have originated from other mints and fallen into the possession of the aforementioned Axis powers through acts of duress. These officials were also concerned that the Bank of England may have acquired some of this gold in the late 1930s and resold it to the United States as British gold. The same concerns applied to the Bank of France, the Bank of Belgium, and the Swiss National Bank.

During the Second World War, the United States was a net exporter of gold and therefore there was no issue about gold of dubious provenance entering the Federal Reserve system as an acquisition or an earmark.

At the end of the Second World War, the United States government discouraged the acquisition of gold bullion that may have been looted by the Axis powers from the central banks of countries that they occupied and annexed between 1938 and 1945. In particular, the United States government was reluctant to accept gold bullion minted at the Prussian State Mint in Berlin and by the Degussa smelting and refining company. Many of the bars ended up in the monetary reserves of the neutral countries, including Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey. There was also suspicion that these bars were shipped to the central banks of Latin American countries, in particular, Argentina.

The United States and its allies negotiated with the neutral countries to persuade them to relinquish these looted bars so that they could be placed in a gold pot from which countries that had lost their gold during the war could reclaim at least a portion of their losses through a claims process administered by the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold.

These negotiations produced settlements which allowed the signatory countries to resume normal gold trade activities and especially to sell looted gold that they had acquired without fear of having to fight off claims by the governments of formerly occupied countries for the gold that they had lost and which was now in circulation again.

Some of this looted gold was used to obtain economic development loans and was posted as collateral to obtain the needed financing from American commercial banks. Some of this gold was also sold to the Exchange Stabilization Fund in exchange for dollars. This activity lasted from the late 1940s into the early 1960s.

From 1945 to 1955, there were concerns in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and in the Treasury about the presence of Prussian Mint bars in the earmarked accounts of foreign central banks at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. An audit conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 1955 revealed that there were more than 2,000 Prussian Mint bars on deposit in the earmarked accounts of foreign central banks at the FRBNY. As of 1956, these same officials were less concerned about Prussian mint bars produced before 1945 than they were about Prussian Mint bars produced after 1945 in the newly-established German Democratic Republic (GDR).

In summary, the United States government did not have a policy in place to screen out gold bullion that it considered to have been fraudulently acquired by foreign central banks. For reasons of international monetary policy and foreign economic considerations, the United States government opted for a non-discriminatory approach to the buying and selling of gold bullion between 1934 and 1968, while gold was valued at the fixed price of $35 per troy ounce of fine gold.

When the United States acquired gold from foreign central banks, it made sure that, before being deposited in the Secretary’s Special Account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, that gold was properly assayed and converted into US Assay Office bars. Hence, there is no question whatsoever about non-US Assay bars being in the possession of the United States government at any given time since the enactment of the Gold Reserve Act and the establishment of the Exchange Stabilization Fund.

When non-US Assay office bars are deposited on earmark in the accounts of foreign central banks at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, they are under nominal control of the United States government as custodian of these bars, much like a bank is the custodian of our funds when we deposit them in a savings or checking account. But the ownership of these assets still lies with the depositor. Thus, if one accepts this model, the United States government did come into the control of non-US assay office bars deposited in earmark accounts of foreign central banks, which were looted by the Nazis, as early as 1939-1940.

Non-US Assay Office bars and coins came under the control of the United States government in the European Theater of Operations, between 1943 and the early 1950s. As American troops swept through the various theaters of operations in Europe to defeat the Axis powers, they came across different categories of assets that had been looted by Axis troops and officials from their victims and the institutions of the countries that they had occupied and incorporated into the Third Reich.

Different procedures were established in the various theaters of military activity that governed the seizure, storage, classification, and disposal of these assets, including gold bullion. Did assets of victims of Nazi persecution fell into the hands of American troops at this particular time? The answer is affirmative. Did American troops know that these assets belonged to victims of the Nazis? The answer varies according to the level of understanding among these troops of the methods used by the Nazis to wrest valuables from their victims and the extent to which these valuables were processed through the Reich’s monetary and financial institutions to gain access to foreign exchange.

With respect to gold bullion, American troops seized over three hundred million dollars (in 1945 dollars) of gold bullion during their campaign of liberation of Europe. There can never be a true accounting of the exact amount of gold found by these troops, their commanding officers, specialized intelligence units like T-Forces and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), its successor the Strategic Services Unit (SSU), as well as by the Counter-Intelligence Corps of the Army, and many other sub-units deployed in the field to gain control of enemy territory and administer the peace.

Because it was common practice in Europe to hoard gold bullion, American officials uncovered thousands of coins and small bars as belonging to private citizens. Under Military Government Law 53, the bulk of the privately-owned monetary gold was turned over to the US Military Government authorities in Germany in the immediate post-war years. The so-called Law 53 gold, or monetary gold owned by private individuals, was disposed of in many different ways. Some of it was placed in the gold pot and restituted to claimant countries. Some of it was claimed by the IRO, although we do not know whether the IRO actually obtained Law 53 gold. Most of Law 53 gold was infused into the German economy. Did Law 53 gold belong to victims of Nazi persecution? There can be no doubt of that.

American, British and French troops found the bulk of the monetary gold at the Merkers salt mine complex in Thuringia, Germany. According to traditional recounting of the story, Allied troops stumbled on the gold, our research shows that there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to demonstrate that senior American officers were aware that a substantial amount of gold that they referred to as “treasure” was located in Thuringia. But they were not sure where the Nazis had hidden it. Also, US intelligence reported that the nascent Nazi resistance movement called Wehrwolf hid gold in many places along the path of incoming American troops. This gold was slated for financing their anti-Allied activities in the period of occupation of Germany and Austria.

In the months preceding and following the defeat of Germany, American troops seized many caches of Wehrwolf wealth, as well as the contents of the Merkers mine, troves of gold coins belonging to sundry German government and security agencies in Germany, Austria, and northern Italy. The American military government authorities established a set of procedures to ensure the proper handling of these gold valuables. There is no doubt, however, that an untold amount of gold bullion ended up in the possession of American troops. That is the nature of war. The post-war black market, if anything, confirms this assertion since gold was the preferred currency of exchange to buy food and items like cigarettes, clothes, and other day-to-day items.

Were there any instances of documented deviations of captured gold bullion while in the custody of American troops and officials of Military Government? We have a few cases, but lack of time and resources has prevented us from conducting an exhaustive search for actual cases of misappropriations. The lack of obvious evidence of such diversions points to a small number of documented cases that researchers might come across in the files of the Theater Provost Marshal or of the Criminal Investigative Branch of the Army.

There are, however, several rumors of massive diversions of gold bullion by senior American officers which still warrant further investigation, owing to the magnitude of the amounts involved and the number of individuals involved. One concerns the so-called Mittenwald cache that was uncovered in southern Germany by American troops in early June 1945. The other pertains to gold bullion uncovered by the Third Army in Thuringia in April 1945 and illegally shipped from Europe to the United States in the summer of 1945. These two allegations deserve to be further investigated, only because of the fact that much has been written about them already and some form of closure is required to either confirm or infirm these rumors that cast a pall of suspicion on the US Armed forces.

Did victim gold come into the control of United States troops? The answer is affirmative. Victim gold was abundantly present at the Merkers as well as in more than forty other caches that the United States Army uncovered throughout the theater of operations. How did the United States government determine that the captured gold belonged to Nazi victims? US officials relied on captured German documents to reach these conclusions. In many cases, they assumed that this gold belonged to victims because of the circumstances surrounding its seizure—Axis police and security officials on the run often fled with booty seized from their victims that was easy to carry, namely gold coins, small bars (coin bars), jewels, precious stones, and cash.

How much control did US troops exert over these captured items? The level of control varied from military region to military region throughout the US zones of occupation. There were a number of irregularities noted in Austria where US intelligence operatives were divided over whether to recycle these captured valuables to finance their clandestine operations or if these valuables should be turned over to the proper finance authorities of US military government. As stated earlier, the conditions were ripe for small-scale thefts to occur, owing to varying levels of accountability or lack thereof. But, for the most part, we believe that these valuables were handled properly, for want of any serious evidence pointing in the opposite direction.

US officials, for the most part, considered captured gold bullion as monetary gold, therefore not subject to restitution to individuals or to organizations that provided relief and rehabilitation support to survivors of the Holocaust and to refugees in search of new homes. The Law 53 gold is a case in point. The most controversial aspect of this question involves the hundreds of tons of gold bullion seized by US troops at Merkers and other caches. Although this gold had been incorporated into the monetary reserves of the Third Reich, a cloud of suspicion as to its true origin has not been lifted since its capture.

The Slany report has devoted an entire chapter to this question. Its authors attempted to resolve this sensitive question in as balanced a way as possible. No one disputes the fact that victim gold was incorporated into the monetary reserves of the Third Reich. The argument centers on how much gold was incorporated into these reserves. Again, lack of time and adequate resources has prevented us from reaching some form of closure. We believe that a moral obligation exists to attain such closure. That is why we will make a recommendation along those lines to pursue the research effort into this question. To that end, we will propose a number of methodologies by which to reach a satisfactory level of closure. Hopefully, the symbolic value of such an effort is not lost on our colleagues and on the commissioners. To us, this gold is a constant reminder of the Shoah, how the personal belongings of millions of individuals who perished in the Holocaust became monetized into gold bars and coins to allow the Third Reich to prolong its policy of military conquest and extermination of those individuals whom they stripped of their personal belongings. The presence of these bars and coins in the reserves of central banks throughout the world, including our own, are a testament to the perversity of Nazi policies. We simply owe it to the victims to get the truth out.

The Allies determined that close to two-thirds of the bars found at Merkers were likely to contain traces of victim gold, some in larger quantities than others, depending on the quality of the melt performed either at the Prussian Mint or at the facilities of Degussa, the largest smelting and refining operation in Germany, and perhaps in Europe.

Useful links:




30 May 2018

Twenty years of Washington Principles: yet another conference

by Marc Masurovsky

On November 26-28, 2018, almost exactly twenty years after the start of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, the German Lost Art Foundation will host an international “specialist” conference entitled: “20 Years of Wash­ing­ton Prin­ci­ples: Chal­lenges for the Fu­ture”. The aims of the conference are as follows:

“Be­gin­ning with a look back at the Wash­ing­ton Con­fer­ence of 1998, the con­fer­ence aims to dis­cuss the de­vel­op­ments that have tak­en place in the in­di­vid­u­al coun­tries since then, in or­der to ad­dress a num­ber of ques­tions for the fu­ture: What spec­trum is there for fair and just so­lu­tions? How can open gaps in prove­nance be dealt with? What does prove­nance re­search need in or­der to be able to work ef­fec­tive­ly? How can its meth­ods be used ad­e­quate­ly in ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, in ex­hi­bi­tions and in mu­se­um com­mu­ni­ca­tion? And above all: What con­tri­bu­tion to a cul­ture of re­mem­brance can prove­nance re­search achieve?"

Twenty years ago, eleven Washington Principles were defined and issued as non-binding recommendations for national governments, cultural institutions and the proverbial art market to follow and abide by as a “soft” means of raising awareness about the racially- and politically-motivated displacements of Jewish-held property, cultural and other, between 1933 and 1945, which provoked illegal transfers of title and ownership from Jewish to non-Jewish possessors. Since then, there have been countless lawsuits and judicial proceedings filed by Holocaust claimants and their families in different legal settings on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean to try and recover what they argued was rightfully theirs. At the same time, museums and auction houses were placed under closer scrutiny, not by regulatory overseers, but by lawmakers, Jewish officials, lawyers, historians, researchers, journalists and NGO’s, in how they presented the contents of their collections, especially those items that were transacted between 1933 and 1945. In the case of the two largest auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, their sales and consignment practices fell under the magnifying glass to screen the provenance of items offered for sale and ensure that they did not indicate possible mishandling during the Nazi years, which could lead to a possible claim to block the sale of the item in order to facilitate a restitution to an aggrieved owner.

How can open gaps in prove­nance be dealt with?

Way too much ink has been spilled since the late 1990s on the subject of “provenance research.” Art historians and museum professionals had never encountered such pressure to explicitly describe and, many times, justify their recourse to “provenance research” in their daily practice as a means by which to ensure that the institution which they served was freed of any possible accusation of holding items which had been illegally displaced during the Nazi years and never returned to their rightful owners. One of the key issues motivating such research was “how to fill gaps” in the known ownership history of objects under their care or being offered for sale through auction houses or in other market venues. Filling a provenance gap has become a regular feature of provenance research, discussed at a plethora of conferences, symposia, and colloquia, organized both inside and outside academic circles in North America, Europe and even Asia. Researchers of all stripes and convictions have built part time or full time careers (as long as they work for defense lawyers and governments!) delving into the sinews of ownership trails to try and find crucial details that might fill up the spatio-temporal abyss known as “the gap.”

Here we are, in 2018, contemplating yet another international conference to reminisce over the Washington Principles. At that conclave, participants will be asked to contemplate “how to deal with open gaps in provenances.” What exactly has happened since 1998, if it is not putting into place complex strategies on how to address those “gaps.” It is hard to imagine how this question is pertinent unless the organizers of the conference have not been keeping tabs with the evolution of the provenance research field, however quixotic it has been.

What spec­trum is there for fair and just so­lu­tions?

Washington Principle #8 states: 

“If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognizing this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case.” As stated in previous articles published on the plundered-art blog, the idea of “a just and fair solution” was not the brainchild of a Holocaust claimant seeking the physical return—restitution—of his/her lost property from the possessing institution, be it public or private.

The real question should be: have current possessors been fair and just to Holocaust claimants? Please explain your response, whether positive or negative.

What does prove­nance re­search need in or­der to be able to work ef­fec­tive­ly?

The framers of the November Berlin conference on Washington Principles should make up their minds about the focus of their gathering. Is it about the future of the Washington Principles or is it about provenance research? Is it about assessing the merits and limitations of the Principles or is it about provenance research? Are they suggesting that provenance research lies at the root of restitution proceedings and “fair and just solutions”? If so, they should state this idea openly. In other words, they seem mighty confused about what they are trying to achieve in November 2018, as if twenty years have come and gone without them witnessing too much. One can grow impatient with such “innocent” questions raised almost in rhetorical fashion to stimulate a discussion which might not actually happen. If one wishes to delve deep into the vagaries and limitations imposed on provenance research by institutions subsidizing and acquiring such research, the discussion might soon become contentious. But contention is not a desired outcome, much as it unfolded at the Franco-German Bonn Conference of November 2017 on the wartime art market in France, where the fault lines on the financing of research in Germany by the Lost Art Foundation were exposed in a rather blunt manner. Do we want such a recurrence to take place in Berlin? I doubt it. If that is the case, the line of questioning should be altered and focused on the crucial issues facing provenance research—lack of funding, lack of focus, too much political meddling in the direction of the research.

How can [the] meth­ods [of provenance research] be used ad­e­quate­ly in ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, in ex­hi­bi­tions and in mu­se­um com­mu­ni­ca­tion?

That’s a rather funny question because most museums—public and private—in Europe and North America oppose almost religiously any discussion of National Socialism, the Holocaust, the Second World War, Nazi expansionism, collaboration with the Nazis, as integral parts of the narrative to explain how these movements, trends, and events would have shaped the fate of objects in their collections. So instead of asking “innocently” how these methods can be used “in ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, in ex­hi­bi­tions and in mu­se­um com­mu­ni­ca­tion”, perhaps the framers of the Berlin conference should provide a sober assessment to the participants as a starting point:

There is no education, there is very little provenance training, if any, there is no talk of the larger historical context in the presentation of ownership histories in exhibitions and in “museum communication”. Ask why that is, instead of pretending that there is training and education.

What con­tri­bu­tion to a cul­ture of re­mem­brance can prove­nance re­search achieve?

This question is astounding in and of itself. It might subsume that restitutions and “fair and just solutions” combined will become obsolete and a thing of the past. Instead of focusing on justice, why not use the history of objects to engage in “remembrance” of lost lives, lost art, the Holocaust and all of its ugliness. Isn’t it better that way? Remembrance is the ticket out for many people to clear their conscience and feel that they are being morally and ethically correct in how they treat objects with dubious histories. Perhaps, we should just set aside the ugliness of the past and focus instead on the loss of human life, as perceived or hinted at through the history of objects with Holocaust-laden stories and interruptions.

It’s hard to fathom how, after twenty years, adult men and women who are supposed to be experts and who are respected for their wisdom and insights, who occupy positions of leadership in institutions that steer and foster research and education on the most complex, most heinous crime—genocide and its corollary, plunder—perpetrated by men and women against other men, women, and children, only because of what they were—Jews--, can propose a framework of discussion which suggests that not much has happened in the twenty years that elapsed since the Washington Conference on Holocaust Assets.

I am tongue-tied.

In the mean time, the best advice that I can give is to hold a parallel conference that discusses the following themes:

-Throw out the Washington Principles, rewrite them and adapt them to the realities of the 21st century;

-Forget about “fair and just solutions”: they constitute a corporate welfare program for claimants, or how to buy out the claim without losing title to looted works in one’s collection.

-Fund provenance research at much higher levels than they are currently,

-Establish provenance research training programs on both sides of the Atlantic in order to train new generations of researchers, art historians into the finer aspects of contextual research that actually weaves the larger history into the history of displaced objects and inculcates critical thinking into their methodologies.

-Learn how to tell stories that are meaningful and truthful, not spun and woven tales designed to make museums feel better about themselves.

Provenance research can be challenging

by Marc Masurovsky

In the two decades since the now-infamous Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets of December 1998 which produced the "Washington Principles." many American museums were placed quite naturally on the defensive since they became the focal point of attention of lawmakers, Jewish organizations, an emerging motley group of art restitution experts, including attorneys, researchers, claimants and assorted historians and NGOs.

In the years following the issuance of the above-mentioned Principles, declarations of faith made by American museum associations--the then-American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) to the effect that they had the "Nazi-era" provenance problem under control were rarely taken seriously, if at all. The specialized public associated either directly or indirectly with questions of art restitution and Holocaust-related thefts of Jewish-owned property, believed--rightly or wrongly--that a vast majority of museum professionals, including their curators, directors and trustees, held the view that whatever entered their collections was there to stay.  Moreover the threshold of evidence needed to consider returning an object was so high that no one on earth could rightfully claim to meet that standard. Hence, all was good in their minds; restitution would remain a dead letter. So they thought.

Since the late 1990s, Holocaust victims and their heirs have challenged American cultural institutions by asking their representatives for the restitution of their families'  objects which they believed had been spoliated, plundered, misappropriated during the commission of an act of genocide. In response to those claims, museum professionals and their legal representatives have tried to show publicly their "good faith" in meeting these historic claims on a solid footing of historical and forensic inquiry leading to some kind of reasonable outcome even if it meant, in the extreme cases, that they would have to part ways with the claimed objects in their collections.

In that spirit, a number of American museums have gone out of their way to convince the public that the research is challenging. The act of documenting the historical path of these claimed objects for the purpose of unearthing misdeeds which would call into question the museum's ownership of these objects poses challenges.  Here are three examples:
Provenance research can prove challenging as records may have been lost or destroyed in the upheaval of war. In addition, the passage of time and world events often make important information difficult to locate. Gaps in the provenance of a particular work may be attributable to different causes, from an owner's desire for anonymity to the unavailability of records of purchase and sale. Thus, incomplete provenance information does not necessarily mean that a work has been tainted by the events of the Nazi era. In addition, in some cases, a work may have been seized by the Nazis but later restituted to its original owners and subsequently donated or sold by them.

Stanford University
This research can be very complex and challenging due to a number of factors, including changes in the attribution and title; physical alteration of a work; the absence, loss, or destruction of transfer documents and other records; ambiguities in family histories; an owner’s desire for anonymity; societal and political upheaval; natural disasters; and poor record-keeping over time. Consequently, gaps in provenance are common and do not necessarily mean the object has a problematic past.

Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

Provenance research is conducted by museum staff, fellows, and interns, and information generated by this work is continually added to individual object records. Although the museum seeks to verify and expand the provenance information associated with individual works of art in its collection, establishing a complete history of ownership can often prove challenging. The museum therefore encourages the sharing of information that might help to clarify the provenance of objects in its collection.

All I can say to the "challenging" nature of provenance research is: no kidding! 

And here we thought research had always been an integral part of a museum professional's daily tasks to do just that--research--before accepting an object as part of the institution's collection.

Live and learn...

23 May 2018

TD 51072

by Marc Masurovsky

Treasury Directive TD 51072 was passed on June 8, 1944, two days after D-Day, under sections 3(a) and 5(b) of the Trade with the Enemy Act. Its aim was to restrict the importation into the US of any art object with a value exceeding 5000 dollars or is of artistic, historic and scholarly interest irrespective of monetary value.” The method of restriction was sequestration of objects falling under the aegis of the Directive. The Roberts Commission was charged with reviewing the documentation accompanying these sequestered objects and either approving or refusing their release under a license issued by Treasury.

The directive applied to any art object that had changed hands since March 12, 1938, two days after the absorption of Austria into the German Reich, known as the Anschluss. In other words, any art object subjected to “internal plunder” from 1933 to 1938, was exempted de facto from the Directive.

Further exemptions to the TD weakened its impact upon enactment.  For instance, objects imported from the United Kingdom and its dominions were exempted from TD 51072. Also, objects coming in from so-called neutral or non-belligerent countries were exempted from inspection at the US Border. However, importers were still required to file two separate forms, a TFE-1 (license to import) and FFC-168 (questionnaire) [FFC-Foreign Funds Control was the main investigative arm of the Treasury and the predecessor to the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the US Department of Treasury]. These forms were designed to shed light on the origin of the objects and the circumstances of their acquisition prior to their entry into the US.

The loophole created by the “artistic, historic or scholarly” value of the object meant that cultural objects viewed as “ordinary” might be allowed in without further ado. What the US authorities together with the museum professionals of the Roberts Commission did not realize is that the vast majority of art objects looted by the Axis fell under that category of “ordinariness.”

The impact of TD 51072 on cultural imports into the US was limited owing to these many exemptions. Also, the Roberts Commission worked hard to dilute its impact and eventually lobbied the Treasury to have the directive revoked on grounds that there was no evidence of loot entering the US. A note here: the Roberts commission would not have known how to identify a looted cultural or artistic object if if it was staring at them, as there were no exhaustive listings of what had been looted by the Axis at the time the Directive was enacted. The Roberts Commission succeeded in getting the TD 51072 revoked and, feeling that its work was done, voted itself out of existence in July 1946, confident that business as usual should resume post haste.






Why all the fuss about provenance research?

by Marc Masurovsky

Up until the mid-to late 1990s, provenance research remained within the province of trained art historians working in cultural institutions where art objects are cared for and displayed for the benefit of the public. The research aims to enhance the understanding of the object—its author, its physical attributes, the period in which it was produced, the reasons for its existence, and how it evolved over time and space.

This kind of research is an academic/intellectual exercise that helps ascertain the authenticity of an object and its place in the history of art, writ large.

It is not a requirement incumbent upon its practitioner. Provenance research is one of many duties that “come with the job.” If it does not get done, no one gets fired. More often than not, the information that is collected about the object does not enter the “public record” insofar as it is communicated to the general public. If it is communicated, that is left up to the discretion of the institution where the research is conducted.

Then, the 1990s came and went, and, all of a sudden, “provenance research” became something else entirely.

If I had been working in a museum in the wake of the scandal surrounding the misuse of Swiss bank accounts owned by persons of Jewish descent who may or may not have perished during the Holocaust, I would have been rather oblivious to any debate about loot in general. Once the debate about the mishandling of “Jewish bank accounts” (I hate that expression!) transferred into the (mis)handling of art objects nestled in the permanent collections of countless museums both in North America and Europe, provenance research entered the spotlight front and center.

If I had been working in a museum at the time that the “Portrait of Wally” by Egon Schiele had been seized at the Museum of Modern Art of New York in early January 1998, I probably would have wondered: what is that all about? And I would have naturally sided with the then owners of the painting, the Leopold Foundation of Vienna, and the exhibitors, the Museum of Modern Art, wondering what Robert Morgenthau, then district attorney of Manhattan, had had for coffee on the day that he decided to order the New York Police Department to seize the painting.

I would have done so because my training would have precluded me from even wondering if I should even worry about whether or not the institution that I served had actual title to the objects under my care and examination. Why should I have worried about title since I simply assumed that my institution was the rightful owner?

The right thing to do is to acknowledge that the beast that has become “provenance research” has been transformed from an innocuous art-historical practice into a tendentious, litigation-laced, means to an end: does the research into the origins of an object lead to the maintenance of that object in the collection that I help steward or does it lead to the de-accessioning of the object because of some historical wrong that broke the chain of ownership of the object, thus changing its status to “restitutable”?

Since the seizure of “Portrait of Wally” in early January 1998, provenance research lost its innocence. Battle lines have been drawn between defendants upholding their rights to keep art objects under fire for being “looted”, on one side, and plaintiffs demanding the return of those art objects arguing that they were the rightful owners whose families had been despoiled for racial, ethnic, religious and other reasons at some point between 1933 and 1945 during the twelve year reign of the Nazi Party and as a result of the expansionist war decreed by Adolf Hitler and his minions against Europe’s “undesirables”-Jews, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, emotionally and physically challenged individuals, and anyone else who was caught in the crosshairs of a continental-wide fit of man-made madness, verging on an apocalyptic nightmare worthy of any painting signed by Hieronymous Bosch.

There had been a glimmer of hope at the time of the so-called Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets of November 30-December 3, 1998. Art was not supposed to be on the calendar of the conference. The seizure of the Schiele paintings (actually, two paintings had been seized at MoMA in early January 1998) changed the configuration of the planning for the Washington Conference. American policymakers were not pleased about the seizure because they argued that it had besmirched the bilateral relations of the United States with Austria. In so stating, the US government had sided against the claimants and had upheld Austria’s argument at the time that the entire flap over “Wally” was a private matter to be resolved between the claimants—heirs of Ruth Bondi-Jarai—and the Leopold Foundation, then owner of the seized paintings. Still, and this is for another installment, Morgenthau’s muscled intervention at MoMA triggered an existential debate inside Austrian political and cultural circles which forced Austria to reexamine its entire relationship with its past as it affected the illegal seizures of Jewish cultural property. The end result: the only restitution law in the world which mandates “provenance research” in all Federal public cultural institutions of the Republic of Austria.

Begrudgingly, the US government and its many allies at the planning table for the Washington Conference inserted art as one of the many different types of looted assets whose fate needed to be deliberated on by the attending nations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). The Washington Conference produced the so-called non-binding “Washington Principles”—11 recommendations that have become de facto “policy” for lack of a better word in many nations that want to remove that cultural monkey off their backs.

For some, the Washington Conference was a success. For others, it was a dismal failure. For those who deemed it a success, the Conference provided a unique forum to get a sense of where the world stood as far as justice to Holocaust survivors was concerned. The principles notwithstanding, everyone went home thinking they had done God’s work for three days. Those who saw in the Conference a dismal failure balked at the so-called Principles as yet another diplomatic way out of taking full responsibility for not having done anything concrete to render justice to the victims of plunder while throwing a sop at museums, auction houses, and other privateers of the art market by reassuring them that, although provenance research was highly recommended to fill “unavoidable gaps” in the history of ownership of art objects under their care and stewardship, “fair and just solutions” ought to be sought in order to ensure a measure of justice for all. In the end, for the naysayers, the Washington Conference led to a massive failure of international public policy, thus creating a vacuum of power and decision-making over the fate of countless art objects whose newfound status in legal limbo—plundered or not? Restitutable or not?—had to be resolved not with legislation but through, oftentimes, vicious legal battles pitting museums’ hired guns against plaintiffs’ hired guns.

The search for justice over a massive crime of plunder tied to genocide has turned into an international legal slugfest. Instead of chasing airplane crash victims, it has become more profitable to seek out victims of plunder.

Some frequently asked questions

by Marc Masurovsky


a/ What is the total number of art objects claimed?

One should place the ultimate answer to this question in its proper context. By May 1945, somewhere between 15 and 20 million art objects of all sorts, from masterpieces to portraits of your favorite saints and relatives, had been misplaced due to civil unrest, persecution, war, genocide, and theft.

Of those misplaced cultural objects, a small number fit the moniker of “culturally-significant” or “national treasure” or both, depending on who is defining those two very odd expressions. For the sake of the argument, let’s just say 1 to 5 per cent of the misplaced objects fit those categories, or 100,000 (lowest number) to 1 million (highest number). The rest fell into the general bucket of culturally not so significant or insignificant, again, depending on who is expounding on this odd categorization.

Postwar Allied restitution policy ended up focusing on the 1 to 5 percent of objects lost or missing due to State-sponsored mischief between 1933 and 1945. For the rest, compensation schemes were foisted onto shell-shocked survivors and their kin due to an institutional absence of interest amongst postwar governments to aid those victims in locating and recovering their missing cultural property for reasons mentioned above. Many of the culturally significant objects and those earning the label of “national treasure” came from State collections plundered by the Axis or from private collections owned by rather wealthy individuals with close ties to State museums in countries dominated by the Axis. Those items received favored treatment in the eyes of the Allies and their representatives, referred to as “Monuments Men”.

The Allied powers’ prime directive was the rehabilitation of Europe (read that part of Europe not occupied or influenced by the Soviet Army and its government) especially as the incipient Cold War became a full-fledged game of geopolitical antipathy between former wartime allies.

As a consequence of the aforementioned factors and those tied to the inevitable human condition—people over property—most survivors did not file claims in the immediate postwar period and only did so after deadlines had passed and the only chance of recovering anything was close to 0.

By 1956, the US State Department had estimated that approximately several hundred thousand cultural objects of all kinds and shapes and value were still being claimed through its good offices by individuals from more than 30 nations.

From the mid-1990s to today, since there is no concerted international effort to tally the total number of claimed objects that are registered as such with national governments, we can only guess that, perhaps, the figure is close to or in excess of the number declared by the State Department in 1956, since most of the claims were never satisfied.

Nations that are signatory to international compacts known as the Washington conference of 1998 and the Terezin Declaration of June 2009 should conduct a census of all outstanding cultural claims registered as of now in their care and publish those results for public consumption.

b/ what is the total number of art objects restituted?

Historically, we only have repatriation figures from various postwar governments and official statistics regarding actual physical restitutions up to the early 1950s. Since then, there is very little public information that can be found about how many art objects were returned until the late 1990s.

Those nations that have established restitution committees (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Austria) have compiled figures regarding the number of objects that have been claimed through their auspices. But no statistics are tallied pertaining to the number of objects returned through direct negotiations with museums, auction houses, institutions, corporations, and private individuals.

c/ what is the total value of art objects sold after restitution?

The only indication of value comes from press reports about items being auctioned after restitution. It can safely be assumed that the objects with an Austrian provenance—mostly oil paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele—have fetched the highest prices at auction following their restitution, mostly due to the infatuation by the upper tiers of the global art market for such works, regardless of their inherent and implicit esthetic value. Those works alone have fetched in toto more than half a billion dollars. It might be safe to conservatively estimate the total value of restituted objects at slightly more than a billion dollars since the late 1990s. But that figure needs to be carefully verified through an elaborate survey of the field of art restitution.

d/ what is the total value of so-called “art restitution litigation?

This question is unfair and unjust but it does capture the collective imagination that impugns all sorts of evil motives to lawyers who seek opportunities wherever they can. We can only surmise how costly litigation efforts can be once we fuse the fees earned from seeking restitution and preventing restitution. Usually, fairly well-heeled law firms are recruited as outside counsel by museums in order to safeguard the integrity of their collections and rebuff attempts by claimants to assert their claims to title. On the plaintiffs’ side, there is an odd mix of solo practitioners and small and large firms involved in art restitution. All told, there are not more than 100 or so attorneys—yes, you read it!—who work on art restitution cases as an integral part of their legal practice if we combined North America, Europe and Israel. Since most plaintiffs cases are adopted on a contingency fee basis, usually 30 per cent, you should take the estimated value of restituted objects and divide that figure by three in order to get an idea on the estimated value of the litigation for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Likewise, for those lawyers defending their clients against outside claims, the fees can easily rise into the millions of dollars for each claimed object. Most of the claimed objects that are subject to intense years-long litigation hold values in excess of 1 million dollars.

Where does all of this leave the bewildered field of provenance research? You guessed it. The two main incentives underlying provenance research are to 1/ safeguard art objects which are part of a museum’s collection or that of an individual collector or 2/ obtain the restitution of such an art object.

What does this mean in terms of the objective and empirical integrity of the research being conducted on the history of an object? How do these legal undertakings affect the very nature of provenance research as distinct from its initial intent as an art-historical practice?

What is the future of provenance research and can it be salvaged as an objective, scientific field of inquiry?

Contextual analysis

by Marc Masurovsky

When looking at an object which is the subject of a claim, one has to know why it is “claimable.”

In other words, the chain of ownership was allegedly broken at some point in its history and the presumed rightful owner never recovered his/her property.

A provenance might not reflect this particular incident whereby one owner loses control of his/her property/the object/through illicit means.

After all, the history of the Third Reich is not contained in a provenance for an object that circulated during the 1930s in Nazi Germany, but anyone reading the provenance should be keenly aware of the historical events that occurred as backdrop to the change of ownership of an object and ask: did those events exert an influence on how this object changed hands?

That is one aspect of contextual analysis.

In this regard, we mean that an object’s history must be viewed in the larger context of events occurring at the time that it changes hands so that we can determine whether that change of ownership was licit or not.

There are also the familiar patterns of complex relations between the presumed owner and colleagues, friends, and business acquaintances alike, which might have weighed in some manner on the ownership trail of the object. In other words, when looking at an object’s history, one must also look at the environment in which the object “evolves.” That is another aspect of contextual analysis.

When discussing forced sales or duress, whereby an individual has no other choice but to sell his property because of the degree to which this person is being exploited, abused, persecuted by representatives of institutions governed by principles that conflict with the owner’s ethos, identity, function and status in the society where he/she operates. The question here is to determine whether or not a forced sale took place. This is all about context. Here again, one has to understand the historical and societal pressures exerted upon the presumed owner of the object to determine whether he/she was in fact compelled to divest him/herself from property that otherwise would have remained unsold had conditions been different. Context and analysis of that context to flesh out the gaps or the spaces in a provenance between different listings of purported owners.

Back to contextual analysis:

Based on the above, can it ever be objective? After all, your forced sale might be my freedom to sell opportunity regardless of who is in power in Germany. What process would close the gap between those two divergent views? How much research would be needed to make a compelling argument for one or the other, but not both? In the Grosz v. MoMA case, inadequate research led to flawed outcomes. The same might be said for the Martha Nathan case against museums inToledo, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan,  and maybe even for the Claudia Seger case against the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

How much contextual analysis is warranted in provenance research? As much as is required to make a reasonable determination of theft or of consent in the way that an object changes hands.

Provenance research: what to do?

by Marc Masurovsky

The fault lines around contrasting views and understandings of provenance research might appear to be subtle to the uninitiated but, in reality, the fissures are brought about as a result of the legal implications of provenance research.

In the view of this writer, a provenance is the history of ownership or possession of an object from the time of its creation to the present days. The older the object, the more likely it will be difficult to account for every movement and place where the object was situated once it left the studio of its maker. But as you all well know, even so-called modern works can have elusive provenances such as “private collection, Zurich”.

The contrast in approach, in my view, stems from the fact that one school, mostly articulated by museum professionals, which we will refer to as “traditional” is not necessarily interested in injecting economic, political and social history into the documentation of the fate of an object, especially as it pertains to the 1933-1945 period. For some strange reason, that entire period remains a taboo subject, difficult to express even in the literature that museums and galleries develop around the objects that they display. This same school also argues that one will never know exactly what happened to an object, maintaining that there is no concrete evidence that something “bad” happened to the owner of the object and, even it did, it might not have affected the legal title to that object. After all, the object might have been sold “legally” and we just don’t know about it. Hence we can never ascertain that the object was in fact misappropriated for racial or political reasons, and therefore should not be restituted to its purportedly rightful owner. This view remains the favorite weapon of individuals who work for those who are best described as the “current possessors” of the object being claimed, namely cultural institutions—public and private.

The other school to which this writer belongs argues that context plays a very important role in determining the fate of an object. One might call it the “organic” school, for lack of a better word. It argues that the object, the place where it is and the person in whose possession it is, represent the three cardinal points around which the history of the object is articulated against the matrix of history which evolves over time and space. Put simply, an object that changes hands in Munich, Germany, and which belonged to a person of the Jewish faith may be moving around for reasons compelled by the change of regime in Germany on January 30, 1933, thus signaling a potentially violent and illegal transfer of ownership after Hitler’s rise to power.

A research training program takes on vastly different features if it follows the “organic” school or the “traditional” school that warrants that the actual fate of an object will never be exactly known, raising the possibility that there could be a document out there that could prove that nothing untoward occurred and the object changed hands legally even in the context of racial and political persecution and genocide.

You would be surprised, but this “traditional” school of thought has led to negative outcomes for claimants more often than not.

When we think about establishing provenance research training programs in colleges and universities, we realize that some schools might adopt one or the other approach. A balanced program would offer both approaches to future practitioners, advising them of the pitfalls and benefits inherent to either approach.

Some participants at the Columbia Conference were very adamant about promoting their own views of how provenance research should be conducted, whether “traditional” or “organic” which is a good thing because it gave those in attendance an opportunity to weigh both in their own minds.
Any museum-guided provenance research training program will likely promote the “traditional” view that provenance research is first and foremost about documenting the itinerary of an object from creation to the present day, with history being relegated to a back seat.

Any provenance research training program guided by the notion that it is essential for the provenance to document who the actual owner of the object is promotes the “organic” view and will assign greater weight to history and the environment in which the object evolved, beyond the narrow confines of conventional art history.

These contrasting views have become an integral part of the landscape of provenance research, influenced and skewed by decades of litigation and legal wrangling between current possessors—in most cases, museums and galleries—and claimants.

The geography of “traditional” vs. “organic”
Where do we find “traditional” views as opposed to “organic” views of provenance research?
In my view, the “traditional” approach is upheld in the hallowed halls of cultural institutions of a certain size located in large metropolitan centers. It can also be found among those who teach in museum studies programs and art history programs. One can even argue that the “traditional” view suffuses the curriculum of these academic programs that train future curators, art historians and other cultural professionals.

The “organic” view, strangely enough, finds its strongest advocates among archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists who take seriously the matrix from which objects are extracted. They are joined by those who research the fate and history of objects lost by claimants and their families. Some government officials, mostly in Europe, have eased their way into an “organic” view of provenance research, especially in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria.

The future of provenance research
There is no game plan right now. The most important next step is to institute formalized academic offerings in colleges and universities that introduce students to both methodologies—“traditional” and “organic”—as well as in specialized workshops organized by non-profit organizations.

The now-extinct Prague-based European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) offered a Provenance Research Training Program (PRTP) from 2012 to 2015 through a series of five workshops staged in five different cities—Magdeburg, Germany; Zagreb, Croatia; Vilnius, Lithuania; Athens, Greece; and Rome, Italy. Both approaches were offered to participants although most workshops tended to lean towards an “organic” view of provenance.

By contrast, the Washington-based American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have offered half-day and day-long seminars characterized as workshops in which they introduced curators, librarians, archivists and art historians to the mechanics of working with objects and documenting their history. These programs fit into the “traditional” mold and will likely continue. Likewise, the Smithsonian Museums appear to be thinking about developing some kind of “traditional” provenance research training program of their own.

Proposals abound about how to produce a more structured approach to training. Some efforts are taking shape in France. Provenance research is now being introduced to universities in select cities—Angers and Paris. The Free University of Berlin continues to offer a curriculum on “degenerate art” which tends to steer away from controversy and thus finds comfort in a more “traditional” approach to provenance research. This is perhaps due to the fact that funding comes from the government. On the other hand, in Munich, the Zentral Institut für Kunstgeschichte (Central Institute for Art History) promotes through its research projects a more “organic” vision of provenance research that gives extra weight to the mechanics of the Third Reich, the relationships of power and interest between various groups in the art world, into the understanding of an object’s pathway through the 1933-1945 period. These relationships and “interests” , it is argued, shape the fate of the object.

There is talk about asking the European Union to establish a Europe-wide entity with EU funds that would coordinate research into the history of objects under review for possible taint of looting or misappropriation. The idea makes eminent sense since national governments have skirted the issue rather successfully for the past 70 years. It might just require such a supranational effort to compel provenance research and training of practitioners. For such an effort to even get off the ground, entities and individuals with an “interest” in these matters of restitution, looted art, provenance research, will have to work together, coalesce their strengths and assets in order to lobby successfully for the creation of a funded unit at the EU level.

And still others argue that the only way to provide training is through some sort of international association of provenance researchers. According to this position, this association (which does not yet exist) will be responsible for coordinating at the national and international level all activities pertaining to provenance research and training. For this to happen, national chapters have to be established and more importantly, a clear definition of provenance research has to be adopted. If we follow this duality of “traditional” vs. “organic”, will the association try and reconcile these two approaches or will it favor one over the other? Who will make that determination? Without a clear understanding of what provenance research is, how can such an association see the light of day?

Maybe several associations are required if the two approaches cannot be reconciled. That might not be the worst thing to do. The only organization of provenance researchers that exist today is in Germany, the Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzforschung (AfP) and includes mostly German researchers who are for the most part working for municipal, regional or federal museums and cultural institutions. Expand this idea and we are talking about fundamental different outcomes and approaches shaped by the employer. In most of Europe, the employer is the government. In the United States, the main employer is a private non-profit or profit-making cultural institution, with the exception of municipal, State and Federal museums. Hence, an international association would become a cacophony of conflicting interests, because some researchers would be government civil servants, others would be working for the private art market, while others would be working for claimants and advocacy groups.

Define your terms

Before anything concrete can happen to transform provenance research into an internationally-recognized profession with its requirements, methods and approaches, its licensure procedures, we all must be clear about exactly what provenance research really is, and how it is practiced. Failing that, there is nothing to talk about. Instead of an association and its bureaucratic pitfalls, let’s instead establish a strong global network of individuals and entities interested in the history of ownership of artistic, cultural and ritual objects, a network that would be inclusive and not exclusive, one with a maximalist understanding of the idea of research. That approach might help shape the contours of a generic definition of provenance research on which everyone could agree without feeling as if they betrayed their principles and ideals.