By David Lister
ONE of Ireland’s most celebrated museums is fighting for its reputation after being accused of hoarding art looted from Jewish families by the Nazis.
The Hunt Museum in Limerick has had to call in a retired Irish judge and two British-based experts to look into allegations by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Paris that its benefactor, the late Anglo-Irish art collector John Hunt, acquired some of his works through alleged business links with Nazi art dealers.
The investigators, led by Mr Justice Donal Barrington, a former Supreme Court judge, were named last week after the museum finally responded to claims the allegations, which were made in a letter from the Wiesenthal Centre to President McAleese. The National Museum of Ireland and the National Gallery of Ireland, both of which have bought items from the Hunt collection, may also have to check their archives for Nazi links.
The Wiesenthal Centre, which has campaigned on behalf of Jewish families stripped of their wealth by the Nazis, said last night that the case should be used as an opportunity for Ireland to examine its neutrality during the Second World War and the murkier aspects of its relationship with Hitler’s Germany. Shimon Samuels of the centre told The Times: “Every country in Europe that was neutral has faced the question of its past. Now it is Ireland’s turn.”
Patrick Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland, said he feared a “smear campaign”. He said: “Let’s see the proof. I would be very anxious to support the Hunt Museum and to make sure they don’t become victims of some mysterious campaign.”
The allegations have revived memories of the dark days in 1904 when, in what became known as the Limerick pogrom, the small Jewish community was chased out after a priest denounced them from the pulpit.
The Hunt Museum, which recently celebrated its seventh anniversary, has strived to improve Limerick’s contemporary image as a violent and impoverished city. The 2,000 works of art and artefacts at the museum, which include paintings by Picasso and Gauguin and a sculpture attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, were seen as a worthy monument to a lifetime of treasure-hunting by Hunt and his German wife, Gertrude. But the reputation of the couple is now in tatters after claims by the Wiesenthal Centre that they were part of an international business network that profited from artefacts illegally taken from Jews.
In a letter to President McAleese last month, the centre alleged that the pair had exploited their friendship with Adolf Mahr, the Austrian who headed the Nazi Party in wartime Ireland and director of the country’s National Museum, a role to which he was appointed by Eamon de Valera, the country’s Prime Minister. The letter said that the couple had been close to “notorious dealers in art looted by the Nazis” and claimed that in 1940 they had fled from London, where they had an antiques shop, because the British police suspected them of “espionage activity”.
Although the Wiesenthal Centre has yet to specify which items may have been acquired illegally, much of the collection appears to have been once German-owned.
The Hunts’ only children, John Hunt Jr and Trudy, have decided to step down from the museum’s board of trustees until the conclusion of the inquiry which, they believe, will restore their parents’ reputation.
Mr Hunt Jr had “no idea” why the allegations against his late parents had surfaced now, he told The Times. “I haven’t seen one shred of evidence that makes sense.” He dismissed suggestions that either of his parents had spied for the Germans or had close links with the Nazis.
Virginia Teehan, the museum’s director, said that it was taking the allegations very seriously. She said: “If there are objects about which queries are being raised, those queries will have to be answered.” http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1033593.ece