Museums have more to do in finding and returning Nazi-era artwork

My Central Jersey 21 January 2011

The Nazis stole hundreds of thousands works of art from Jewish people and others during the regime's reign of terror in Europe in the '30s and '40s.

One of those pieces turned up at the The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. The 1509 work "Portrait of a Young Man" by German painter Hans Baldung Grien was to have been shown by the Zimmerli in an exhibition of its European collection, set to open in April. Instead, a phone call from Simon Goodman of Los Angeles changed that.

Goodman is the grandson of a Dutch banker whose artwork was stolen by the Nazis in Holland in May 1940. The piece in question had drawn the interest of Karl Haberstock, who was a German dealer representing Adolf Hitler, and it was part of seven works traded in return for safe passage out of Nazi-occupied Europe by Goodman's grandparents.

However, the Nazis broke their word, looted the art and sent Goodman's grandparents to their deaths at a concentration camp.

The painting eventually found its way into the hands of a London dealer between 1948 and 1950, and by 1953 was in the possession of the dealers Rosenberg and Stiebel of New York, who sold or transferred it to Rudolf Heinemann, according to the Zimmerli.

Heinemann gave the painting to Rutgers University in 1959.

After Simon Goodman's phone call, the university's associate general counsel, Elizabeth Minott, investigated the claim for a year before returning the painting.

"After so many years of dealing with art museums around the world, it has been a pleasure to work with Rutgers and the Zimmerli. Their professionalism and courtesy have been exemplary," said Goodman at a recent public ceremony in which the university returned to work.

Rutgers did the right thing in returning the painting to its owner once it was determined that Goodman had a proper claim. But the school's response was not as obvious or common as it might seem. There is an unsettling friction between museums and claimants over ownership of many objects of art in American and European museums. The New York-based Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. have created a database of more than 20,000 art objects stolen in Germany-occupied France and Belgium from 1940 to 1944, according to the Associated Press.

Nearly half of the objects haven't been returned to their rightful owners. Beyond those approximately 10,000 pieces, there are thousands more works still in the wrong hands, according to reports.

"The restitution of World War-II era artwork is one of the most important legal and moral issues facing museums today, and we at Rutgers and the Zimmerli took the Goodman family claim most seriously," said Zimmerli director Suzanne Delehanty.

We agree. But we also note the stolen piece had been in the possession of Rutgers for more than 50 years. Perhaps there is more that the Zimmerli and other museums can and should be doing to determine the origins of other art works and whether they were stolen by the Nazis.

Rutgers responded admirably to Goodman's claim. But a more proactive approach involving other museum pieces could be in order as well.
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