Talking looted art

Jerusalem Post 23 August 2008
By Marilyn Henry

1998 was the Year of Nazi-Looted Art. From beginning to end, the art world was frantic about claims from Nazi victims.

January 1998 saw Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, detain an Egon Schiele painting, "Portrait of Wally," after its ownership was disputed by the heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray, the Viennese Jewish gallery owner from whom it was taken in 1938. "Wally" was on loan from Austria's Leopold Museum to New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at the time of its seizure; it is now at the heart of a federal American court case.

December saw 44 nations meet under the auspices of the US State Department to discuss the massive scale of losses and theft in Nazi-occupied Europe and post-war restitution. While much cultural property was recovered, much remains missing. "It is my belief, because of these large numbers, that every institution, art museum and private collection has some of these missing works," Ronald S. Lauder, then chairman of MoMA, said at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets.

The nations agreed to the "Washington Principles," which call for the location and restitution of Nazi-era looted artworks, opening archives, a central registry of information, and means for "just and fair" resolutions of claims. A decade after the Year of Nazi-Looted Art, three restitution-related conferences are planned - none of which, despite the vows of 1998, seem especially useful to Nazi victims or their heirs.

THE FIRST is next month in Paris, hosted by the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme. The second, in December in Berlin, is under the auspices of German federal cultural offices. Both conferences no doubt will mention the Washington Principles, which provide the raison d'etre for any restitution activities under way.

That is well and good; the problem concerns the guest lists. Both conferences are for museum professionals and auction houses, historians and provenance researchers, as well as government officials who deal with claims. While it is not a bad idea to hold conferences, these are not for the people who make restitution policy or pledges. Those people are invited to the third conference, in June, hosted by the Czech Republic as the concluding event of its presidency of the European Union.

The problem with the Czech conference, to be held in Prague and Terezin, is that there are no incentives for countries to send diplomatic delegations to it. In fact, countries may find reasons to avoid it.

Russia, for instance, simply cannot be bothered with restitution. It has traditionally manipulated museums and governments - most recently, Britain - to provide ironclad guarantees of immunity from seizure if museums want to borrow Russian museums' artworks. Austria doesn't want to be reminded of its losses. It is smarting from the legal battles over the Gustav Klimt paintings that were claimed by the heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. These were finally restituted in 2006, when the iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer quickly was purchased for a reported $135 million by Lauder, who has an extensive private collection whose origins are subject to much speculation and whose pockets apparently are deeper than those of the Austrian Culture Ministry.

The government of Sweden, the proud sponsor of an international conference in 2000 on Holocaust education, would not want to be shamed for the way in which it avoided contending with its own pledges. When confronted with a claim for an Emil Nolde painting, the government left the public museum, the Moderna Museet, to deal with it. The museum, however, seems disinclined to move quickly.

UNLIKE ITS behavior in the later Clinton years, the US hasn't lectured anyone about restitution under the Bush administration. Nor has it done much. With only a few federally owned and operated museums, the US government says there is no specific role for it in the art restitution process. However, the US has declined to use the leverage it has. For instance, it could compel museums to conduct provenance research before it provides federal indemnities for borrowing artworks from abroad, which spares museums hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance costs.

Museums around the globe have said they lack the funds, time and expertise for extensive provenance research. Germany recently announced that it will make more funds available for research, which means German museums cannot plead poverty to delay restitution research.

If it is daunting for the museums, it is much more so for the victim of art theft or his heirs, who are unlikely to have the skill or resources to track a stolen painting and pursue a claim. This point was raised in a lawsuit pending in a US court, over the ownership of the painting "Two Nudes (Lovers)" by Oskar Kokoschka, now in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

The claimant is the heir of Oskar Reichel, who operated an art gallery in Vienna. The heir is a nurse, not an art collector. She was unaware of the Reichel paintings until 2003 when the Museums of Vienna contacted her, saying they intended to return four artworks that had been confiscated from Reichel by the Nazis. At the time, she had no expertise regarding Nazi art-confiscation practices, no familiarity with the art market, and no knowledge of what agencies might help locate other Reichel artworks.

The Washington Principles encouraged Nazi victims to come forward to make claims, and governments vowed to find "just and fair" solutions for legitimate ones.

Since the Washington conference, however, only several European countries have established panels to deal with spoliation claims. Each operates according to its own rules. In the US, claimants and museums can resort to the courts to try to establish their rights, but American civil laws were not designed to deal with World War II-era losses. In addition, there is no consensus on what constitutes "looted" art. One American court ruled late last year that if an object was sold under duress during the Nazi era, it was considered "stolen," but that court ruling is not binding on any other claim.

The Year of Nazi-Looted Art established some high-minded principles. But unless governments are prepared to aggressively investigate the provenance of artworks in public collections, locate owners and heirs, and establish functioning mechanisms to fairly adjudicate art claims, additional conferences will be academic exercises of no meaningful value to the Nazi victims the Washington Principles were intended to aid.
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