"Our goal is to assure our many publics that American museums are committed to only having in their collections objects to which they have clear legal title, untainted by controversy or illegal, unjust appropriation," said Edward H. Able Jr., the president of the association.
The Web site, formally called the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal, contains the research of 66 museums. Able estimated that there are 150 to 160 museums in the United States whose sizable budgets would make them likely homes for the works of Degas, Picasso, Monet and other famous artists favored by the Nazis. In 2001, the museums were asked by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets to look at work that changed hands in Europe between 1932 and 1945.
Able said the voluntary effort had worked well. "The museums weren't aware that some of this material had made it into their collections," he said. "The directors are totally committed and sensitive to this. They don't want to have anything in the collections that is stolen." Many of the country's largest museums complied, including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Guggenheim.
Since the spotlight fell on the whereabouts of Nazi stolen art in the 1990s, American museums have identified or returned almost a score of works. About six other cases are pending. Once ownership was established, not everything was returned. "In some cases the object went back to the claimant; in some cases it was sold to the institution; some gave part of it to the institution and others gave it outright," Able said.
The material submitted by the museums for the registry is straightforward. It includes the artist, the artist's nationality, the country of origin and the artwork's title. Once a piece is identified, the researcher is directed to additional material provided by the museum on its provenance (the history of its ownership). A gap may or may not mean the work had been stolen, said Able.
Just getting that far in a search is noteworthy, said Gideon Taylor, executive director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. "Information has been disorganized and sporadic. This organizes it. Often with restitution the lack of access to information can be a blockage. A lot of people don't get to the start of their journey because they don't know what to pursue," said Taylor. The conference gave $75,000 to the project, which has a budget of $750,000 over the next five years.