Government-backed company claims all Nazi loot from museums

The Art Newspaper 18 April 2007
Lauren Gelfond Feldinger

JERUSALEM. An Israeli Holocaust restitutions com¬pany is asking museums in Israel to hand over all unclaimed Nazi-looted art and objects held in their collections, starting with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Since 1951, Israeli museums have held unclaimed works of art seized from European Jews by the Nazis.

But survivors of the Holocaust and heirs of Nazi victims still do not know the full extent of works held in Israeli institutions, says Avraham Roet, the director of the Company to Locate and Return Assets to Holocaust Survivors. “It’s been 60 years; survivors are dying daily, how much longer can they fight [for the recovery of their property]?” asks Mr Roet, himself a Holocaust survivor.

Since the assets recovery company was launched in November, it has focused on recovering land and money held by Israeli institutions but is now also focusing on the restitution of art and objects.

Mr Roet says that once he is in possession of works handed over by Israeli museums, his company is legally entitled to sell these to raise money for Holocaust survivors, if original owners or heirs cannot be found. Financed by government loans, the assets recovery company is expected to repay the loans in full using up to two percent of recovered assets, though it opposed this arrangement.

Israel Museum officials in Jerusalem say they were surprised to receive a letter from the assets recovery company a few weeks ago, demanding every unclaimed Holocaust-era object and work of art. “We are now studying the legislation,” says museum director James Snyder. He argues that no organisation can preserve, exhibit and publish works of art better than a museum.

Since its founding in 1965, the Israel Museum has held some 550 paintings, drawings and prints, and several hundred Judaica objects looted by the Nazis from European Jews. These were shipped to Israel in the early 1950s by the Jewish Restitutions Successor Organizations (JRSO), an umbrella organisation consisting of American, European and mandatory-Palestine Jewish associations. The JRSO was named custodian of unclaimed Nazi-looted properties at the 1946 Paris Reparations Conference.

Two hundred of the JRSO paintings and drawings at the Israel Museum were originally in the collection of the Berlin Jewish Museum, destroyed during the war, though the Israel Museum has placed many of these on long-term loan to the new Jewish museum in Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind.

Of the Israel Museum’s additional 350 Nazi-looted works of art with no ownership records, the most important and best preserved paintings are either on display or on loan, including Egon Schiele’s Krumau-Crescent of Houses, 1915, and Marc Chagall’s Praying Jew, 1914. Fifty of the JRSO Judaica items are currently on display. According to the museum, most works that are currently in storage arrived in poor condition and are of little art historical value.

“It’s important for us to continue to hold these works. Museums are appropriate venues for such custodianships, and in this case we were charged to be custodians,” says Mr Snyder. “JRSO made a point of distributing cultural property with no prior ownership records to be held for the public good. The Egon Schiele, for example, belongs in a museum setting—especially in Israel—where it can be appreciated by the public.”

According to the Israel Museum, the arrival of the JRSO works in Israel was publicised at the time and resulted in the restitution of some works. To date, the museum has returned some 20 JRSO works to heirs of Nazi victims.

The museum has also returned two works it had not received from JRSO: an 1897 Pissarro painting and an 1898 Degas drawing.

Because of an Israeli law enacted in January 2006 to create the assets company, Mr Roet believes that the JRSO mandate has now been superseded and the Israel Museum must list and display all works which could be claimed by Holocaust survivors or their heirs regardless of the works’ value or condition before handing them over.

Last month officials from the company and the Israel Museum met for the first time. The museum is continuing to catalogue its JRSO material, anticipating publication, and will share this information with the company, which will also make it public, says Mr Snyder.

A company official says that an inventory of the works in the Israel Museum would only be “a first step”.
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