Looted Nazi art row lays bare Ireland's war record

Reuters (UK) 14 March 2004
Stephan Cunningham

DUBLIN - Allegations surrounding looted Nazi art and espionage have thrown an unwelcome spotlight on neutral Ireland's wartime record.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a U.S.-based Jewish rights group, said that links between the founders of one of the country's top museums with the Nazis and dealers in art stolen from Holocaust victims raised questions about the origins of material in the museum.

The Hunt Museum in Limerick, southwest Ireland, has called in outside experts to conduct an inquiry into the charge that John and Gertrude Hunt could have acquired some of its works through dubious means.

Museum director Virginia Teehan said that the inquiry would be entirely independent, but added that there was no evidence at all to support the allegations.

While it would be impossible to be certain of the origins of every single item in the art collection, John Hunt, son of the founders, said that anything proved to have been stolen would be returned to its rightful owners.

"I do not want anything in that museum that has the slightest question mark over it," he pledged on RTE state television.

According to the Wiesenthal Centre, the Hunts enjoyed close relations in the 1940s with Adolf Mahr, an Austrian Nazi who was director of the National Museum of Ireland. It also says their arrival in Ireland in 1940 was "one step ahead of British suspicions of their alleged espionage" on behalf of the Nazi regime.

The centre's international liaison director, Shimon Samuels, called for the Limerick museum's recent "Irish Museum of the Year Award" to be suspended until the inquiry was over.


"To do otherwise would impugn the good name of this prestigious award and deny justice, after 60 years, to eventual Holocaust survivor heirs, before it is too late," he said.

The Hunts, leading art dealers and antique experts of their day, amassed a collection worth millions.

When they died, their children John and Trudy donated the Hunt art collection, ranging from paintings, artefacts, medieval crucifixes and 18th century decorative art, to the state. These include works by Pablo Picasso, Auguste Renoir and Henry Moore.

The two deny their parents were guilty of any wrongdoing, and have released letters showing their involvement in a group that helped Jewish families escape Nazi Germany as proof.

"The documented activity of John and Gertrude Hunt in helping Jewish families getting out of Germany is hardly consistent with the notion of them being accused of supporting the Nazis themselves," said son John.

Samuels said Ireland should use the opportunity afforded by the probe to examine its controversial neutrality during World War Two.

Allied convoys under attack from German U-boats were denied access to Irish ports under this policy of neutrality, to Winston Churchill's great annoyance.

At one stage, Britain's wartime leader even drew up contingency plans to invade the Irish Republic, fearing that the presence of the German and Japanese legations in Dublin could compromise intelligence.

On being informed of the death of Adolf Hitler, then Irish prime minister Eamonn De Valera even paid a visit to the German Embassy to sign the book of condolences, a gesture dubbed "neutrality gone mad" by the New York Herald Tribune.

As the current president of the European Union, Samuels said Ireland had a duty to challenge bigotry and prejudice on the world stage.


"As 10 countries prepare to join the EU later this year, Ireland should be doing more to combat the very acute conditions of racism in some of them, such as against the Roma community," he said in a telephone interview.

This isn't the first time the Wiesenthal Centre has turned its attention to Ireland.
In the 1970s, it helped expose notorious Dutch war criminal Pieter Menten, after survivors recognised Jewish victims' paintings in his art collection.

But in this case, the letters page of the Irish Times newspaper has shown considerable support for the museum and the Hunts.

"If the Hunts ever unwittingly bought a looted treasure for their collection you may be sure the vendor never mentioned its provenance," wrote Etienne Rynne, a professor of archaeology in Galway.

"I personally believe that Dr Samuels and the Wiesenthal Centre will end up with egg on their faces -- just as did George W. Bush and Tony Blair who went to war for something that just wasn't there," she added.
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