The heirs are invited

Haaretz 8 February 2007
James Synder and Isaac Molho

The reputation of the Israel Museum is that of an institution that returns cultural assets that were lost to their legal owners or their heirs during the Holocaust. The museum's activity in this area has served, and still serves, as an example to famous institutions the world over. During the 40 years of its existence, the museum has tried to demonstrate openness, transparency and goodwill regarding every issue, request or demand related to works of art that survived World War II.

Every request the museum has received, from anywhere in the world, has been give full attention and handled fairly and professionally.

We consider it an obligation to ourselves to respond to the things that were written and said recently regarding works of art that were transferred at the time to the Bezalel Academy and the Israel Museum by the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), the organization for restoring Jewish property to its heirs. These works are now being held in custody in the Israel Museum.

At the end of the war, the JRSO transferred to Jewish institutions in Israel and the world over works of art and cultural items that it had collected after the war, and which had no known owners or claimants. In this context, in the early 1950s, Bezalel received custody of several hundred objets d'art. Many objects from this collection were displayed in the galleries of Bezalel as soon as they arrived in Israel, and some were restored to legal owners and heirs.

When the Israel Museum was established in the mid-1960s, the Bezalel collections were transferred to it, including the items received from the JRSO, and ever since, these have been in the museum's custody.

What do we know about the source of the objets d'art? About half of them had belonged to Jewish institutions that no longer existed after the war. As for the rest, due to lack of information regarding ownership, there was no possibility of identifying which of them used to belong to Jews who died in the Holocaust. Some of the above-mentioned works, which are of artistic importance, are regularly displayed in the museum galleries, and some have even been exhibited and publicized abroad.

All these artworks are always officially and prominently identified as works received from JRSO. Most of the works received from the organization are less important artistically, and many of them were even received in poor condition. These works cannot be displayed in the museum; according to the definition of its purpose, the museum is an institution committed to a fitting level of artistic quality.

Over the years private individuals claimed ownership of one work or another received from the JRSO. Thus, from the 1950s on, dozens of objets d'art received from the JRSO were restored to their owners as a result of requests from heirs. The latest example of the settlement of such a claim occurred at the end of 2006. At present, in the context of a project to computerize the museum's collections, the Israel Museum is laboring to post the works that are being held in custody from the JRSO on the museum Web site, a step that is likely to increase awareness of their existence.

The Israel Museum has learned of the establishment of a new government company to locate and return assets of Holocaust victims. The museum is now about to examine, in coordination with company representatives, the relevance of the latter's demands regarding those works from JRSO that the museum holds in custody.

One of the central aims of the JRSO was to prevent the sale and scattering of the works, and to concentrate them for safekeeping in appropriate institutions in Israel and abroad. In the case of the works sent to Bezalel, this was an initiative designed to support the State of Israel as the place for preserving the cultural values of the Jewish people. We affirm that the national obligation of the museum is to safeguard the works for the sake of the future, by virtue of the institution's purpose of preserving the cultural assets of the Jewish people for the sake of future generations.

The issue of the artworks that were lost in the Holocaust is a sensitive and important one. All of us, public figures, people in the art world, journalists and editors, must treat it as such.

James Snyder is director of the Israel Museum. Isaac Molho is the chair of its board of directors.'The%20heirs%20are%20invited%20'&dyn_server=
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