July 12, 2006

Nazi loot in museums throughout America

Posted at 12:26 pm in Similar cases

This article looks at some recent restitution cases in the USA – focusing on cases involving Jewish owned artworks which were taken by the Nazis & have now ended up in museums.

Combined Jewish Philanthropies

Plundered art plagues museums all across America
New York Times Syndicate

While the Kimbell’s sudden return in June of its sole Turner painting makes it the first Texas museum to restitute — without immediately buying back — a prized part of its permanent collection once plundered by the Nazis, it is far from the only national institution to be confronted with this complex dilemma.

Art repositories from Seattle to Boston have been entangled in a movement to ferret out Holocaust-era stolen art and restore it to its victimized owners.

“But make no mistake, what happened to the Kimbell has shaken up the museum world,” says Hector Feliciano, whose 1995 book, “The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy To Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art”, chronicles the staggering number of artistic treasures confiscated by the Nazis in the ’30s and ’40s.

If the obligation to relinquish such formidable art pieces has sent shock waves throughout the museum world, what these restituted works are now fetching at resale is worthy of tabloid press.

On June 19, “The” “New York Times” reported that cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder had shelled out the highest amount ever paid for any work of art — $135 million — for Gustav Klimt’s gilt-shimmering 1907 portrait “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”. This 20th-century gem, stolen by the Nazis, had for the past 60 years been the showpiece in the Austrian gallery of Vienna’s Belvedere Palace. In January, it was restituted to 90-year-old Maria Altmann, the portrait subject’s niece.

The London-based organization Art Loss Register lists in its records 50,000 artworks — nearly all of them the property of Jewish families, collectors and dealers — confiscated by Nazi or Soviet troops and put into forced auctions during the key period of 1933-45.

“This is becoming a very sensitive issue,” says Sarah Jackson, Art Loss Register’s director of historic claims. “We’ve certainly seen an upsurge in due-diligence inquiries from museum curators and private art dealers.”

The American Association of Museums says that during the past 12 years, 30 claims for Holocaust-looted art have been reported in the U.S. In one instance, the Art Institute of Chicago agreed with Greta Silberberg, who, as the heir to the original owner of Gustave Courbet’s “Rock at Hautepierre”, made a 2001 claim on the work.

The A.I.C. retained the painting as a part of its permanent collection after paying an undisclosed sum to Silberberg’s family.

With the mid-’90s publication of two books — Feliciano’s “The Lost Museum” and Lynn H. Nicholas’ “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” — the museum world got an abrupt wake-up call to the magnitude of the restitution problem. Feliciano, a highly regarded authority within the art-history community, thinks the Art Loss Register listings only scratch the surface. Concentrating just on art plundered in wartime France (easily the most-looted Western European country during the war), he claims that Nazi-stolen pieces there numbered a staggering 100,000 — or about 20 times the core collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“The best tools we have to track down Nazi-looted art are the Nazi records themselves,” he says. “They just kept great records, often recording two or three inventories of the same collection.”

Alerted to the gravity of the situation by the Feliciano and Nicholas books, the United States museum community convened the Washington Conference of 1998, where guidelines were drawn up for how American museums should handle claims against Nazi-confiscated art.

With the exception of the Kimbell, none of the major Texas museums — including the Dallas Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art — have been approached with a claim, but each has initiated a full provenance examination of works from their permanent collection that might fall under suspicion.More than a decade ago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston began to sift through its “entire” permanent collection, seeking conspicuous gaps in provenance from 1930 to 1945.

“That was clearly the key period, with all those forced sales and the trauma those poor people went through,” says the museum’s director, Peter Marzio. “So we just said to ourselves, ‘Let’s find out a bit more where these pictures were during that time.’ ”

On director Timothy Potts’ initiative, the Kimbell has posted on its Web site as complete a provenance history as possible on 311 of the museum’s total collection of 341 works. The laborious research took three years. The DMA has disclosed similar details about 150 of its 23,000 works.

In fact, most well-endowed museums across the country have followed suit. Many of their Web sites also offer a link to the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (www.nepip.org), set up in 2003 by the American Association of Museums. As of today, 146 art institutions have listed on the portal a total of 17,500 permanent-collection objects, all of them classified as works that “may” have circulated in and out of the art market in Continental Europe between 1933-1945.

“Clearly, the Internet represents the biggest leap forward. It just helps so much,” says Feliciano.

Before the Kimbell’s Turner troubles, the Texas museum most affected by fallout from plundered art had been Houston’s Menil Collection. Its 1907 Matisse, “Brook With Aloes”, was first owned by Alphonse Kann, a Parisian collector. In 1940, the Matisse was among hundreds of works looted from Kann’s home. Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil purchased “Brook With Aloes” from New York’s Hugo Gallery in 1950, and it became one of their small museum’s signature pieces.

Six years ago, representatives of the Kann estate contacted the Menil and presented the museum with documentation pointing to the Matisse’s confiscation by the Nazis. Finally, in 2002, the Kann representatives negotiated an amicable resale of the work to the museum.

Unquestionably, the sudden reemergence of these many highly coveted works is a business dream come true for the brokers at auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who doubtless never expected many of them to ever again come to market.

It remains uncertain whether the Kimbell will try to repurchase “Glaucus and Scylla” when Christie’s opens bidding in April. What is certain is the public relations windfall the museum has reaped.

Almost without exception, art-world observers and museum directors have applauded the Kimbell for how quickly and uncontentiously they resolved the Turner claim.

“As a representative of the Jewish community, I think they dealt with it with high integrity,” says Leonard Schweitzer, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who also serves as a docent at the museum.

The resolution, it is thought, will serve as a model for other museums to follow.

“I’m really impressed,” says Marc Masurovsky, a co-founder of Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Art Restitution Project. “There was no litigation necessary to achieve the proper restitution to the owner, and the speed of the resolution was truly amazing. I hope the rest of the museum world studies carefully what the Kimbell did.”

For longtime Kimbell director Potts, this was as black-and-white a decision as he’s ever made.

“Sure, museums serve an essential function in providing a public showcase for art,” he says, “but that doesn’t override the undeniability of ownership by some individual over a work.”

— Andrew Marton

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