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.