Museums' Research on Looting Seen to Lag

The New York Times 25 July 2006
Randy Kennedy

A major survey of American museums has found that many have not yet done significant research to determine whether works in their collections were looted during the Nazi era, despite a collective agreement seven years ago to make such work a priority.

The survey of 332 museums, to be released today, was conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, known as the Claims Conference, a New York-based organization created after World War II to help restore Jewish property to Holocaust survivors and their families.

The group decided to become more involved in the question of looted art last year after concern arose that the American Association of Museums, which adopted guidelines in 1999 urging its members to examine their collections and later created a special Internet site for such information, was not doing enough to monitor museums’ progress.

According to Gideon Taylor, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, the museum association said that it was not its job, as a voluntary organization, to examine the extent to which its members were following the guidelines.

“It was an unknown,” Mr. Taylor said. “There was no way to evaluate or judge what individual museums or museums collectively were doing to implement those principles to which they had all agreed.”

But the museum association, while conceding that it does not collect the kind of detailed information that the Claims Conference was seeking, disagrees strongly with the conclusions of the survey. It contends that the conference cast too wide a net, seeking information from many museums whose collections probably have no works that could have been looted.

“I think the thrust of their survey was in many ways asking the wrong questions,” said Edward H. Able Jr., president and chief executive of the museum association. He argued that most American museums have made such research a priority and that the 18,000 artworks now listed at the museums’ special Web site, the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (, represent “a major, major portion of the material that meets the criteria” of work that could possibly have been confiscated by the Nazis.

The new survey found that while some museums with major holdings of European art — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — have made substantial headway in provenance research, others have done little beyond identifying which of their works fall within the parameters that might mean they were looted.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, for example, reported that they were spending no money on provenance research and had no staff members devoted to it. Houston said that its collection included 61 paintings and sculptures that fell within the parameters, and the Wadsworth said it had 70 paintings that did.

Of the 332 museums that were sent questionnaires by the conference in February, 214 responded before a deadline of July 10. Of those, approximately 114, or slightly more than half, said that they were actively conducting provenance work. The remaining 100 museums either said they were not doing such work or did not provide enough information for the Claims Conference to be able to make a determination.

The association’s guidelines specify that museums should focus on objects created before 1946 and acquired by museums after 1932, and that underwent a change of ownership between those two dates and might reasonably be thought to have been in Europe during that period.

While the vast majority of those objects are not assumed to have been taken illegally, the only way to know is to pin down their provenance and publish as much information as possible for potential claimants, a job that can be very difficult because ownership histories are often murky and documentation nonexistent.

Exact numbers are impossible to determine, but some experts believe that the Nazis seized 600,000 important works from 1933 to 1945. As many as 100,000 pieces are still thought to be missing, and some have undoubtedly been destroyed.

Estimates of the number of seized works that ended up in the United States vary widely. In the last eight years, as more provenance information has been made available, only 22 works have been returned to owners or their heirs, and another 6 cases are pending, museum officials said. In addition to museums, some private galleries and collections could also contain looted art, but information about those works is even more difficult to come by.

American museums began to focus seriously on the issue only in the 1990’s, and the effort to make information available on the Web site was delayed for more than a year by lack of financing. Eventually, several groups, including the Claims Conference, provided funds.

Among the larger museums that did not respond to the conference’s survey in time were the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The Guggenheim, which has taken part in the museum association’s Internet portal since the site’s founding, said it had completed the survey but that it was delayed in the museum’s legal office. The museum sent its responses to the conference on Friday.

The Getty has also long conducted provenance research, and its grant program provided money for the association’s Web portal. But in a statement, the museum said it was simply unable to complete the survey before its deadline. “I do not want to excuse our tardiness, but the many issues we have been dealing with distracted us,” said Ron Hartwig, the museum’s spokesman. “We take this issue very seriously and truly regret not being included in the survey results.”

The museums that responded to the survey collectively listed 140,000 works that fall within the period in question, considerably more than the 18,000 works that are now listed on the museums’ Internet portal. Of the museums that clearly responded that they were conducting provenance research, the survey found, 52 percent had completed work on less than half of the relevant items in their collections, and most research was being conducted on paintings and sculpture, not on drawings and prints. The survey also found that only 10 percent of the museums conducting provenance research employ or have ever employed a full-time researcher.

“There has been progress, but there is still a lot to do,” Mr. Taylor said. He added that the conference, which conducted the survey in association with the World Jewish Restitution Organization, was “disappointed that some museums declined to report at all on what steps they have or have not taken.”

“We believe that this is an issue that is not only important; it is also one that must be resolved quickly if it is to be effective,” he said. “The generation who survived the Holocaust is slipping away. This may be a last chance for them to be reunited with a tangible connection to a family that was lost.”
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