Then last month, while poring over headline-grabbing images of art seized by authorities from a Munich apartment, he had an "Ah-ha" moment. A Toulouse-Lautrec print, of a dancing couple, seemed eerily familiar.
Wesley Fisher, research director for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany Axel Dupeux for The Wall Street Journal
An obscure database could be instrumental in helping to identify some owners of the roughly 1,400 works seized lfrom the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt. Mary Lane has details on Lunch Break. Photo: AP.
Mr. Fisher is the research director for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the New York-based organization tasked with compensating Holocaust victims for Nazi persecution. For years, he has attempted to chronicle the Hitler regime's looting across Europe and the former Soviet Union. In particular, he fought to create a database that would collate far-flung records on works taken by the Nazis from French Jews.
"I was trying to push the idea that property theft was an integral part of the genocide against the Jews," says Mr. Fisher, 69 years old. "But our society concentrated on the murders, the killings."
Now, the obscure database could be instrumental in helping to identify some owners of the roughly 1,400 works seized from the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a prominent Nazi art dealer.
Within an hour of spotting the Toulouse-Lautrec print, Mr. Fisher consulted the database and found a possible match—a lithograph of the same approximate size and bearing the same title, "La Goulue Dansant avec Valentin Le Désossé," as the newly discovered print.
The lively work, according to Nazi records in the database, had belonged to Esther Van Cleef, Jewish matriarch of the illustrious Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry dynasty, and confiscated during the war. Eventually, the Germans brought it to the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, one of the main processing centers for stolen art in the early 1940s. The Nazis, methodical in their work, had even taken a photograph of the print.
Questions about the origins of the Gurlitt trove, which includes works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and Renoir, have riveted the world. While German authorities have yet to divulge the identity of all the works, they have said they believe that less than half of them were stolen from Jewish owners.
The flurry of interest in the case has helped to validate Mr. Fisher's work, which has been credited by French and other cultural officials for helping to identifying other stolen goods.
At the same time, Mr. Fisher has emerged as an outspoken figure on the need to be as transparent as possible about the high-profile Gurlitt collection. By virtue of his position at the Claims Conference, he has pushed the organization to take a tough stance in discussions with Germany.
For starters, he doesn't agree with the Germans' math. "How they came to the conclusion that 590 were possibly looted from Jews is not clear," he says.
In a statement from the Gurlitt task force, a spokesman said that great care had been taken to examine the "entire stock."
There are other challenges. When tracing works on paper like the Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, "it is always the same problem," says Marc Masurovsky, a historian commissioned by Mr. Fisher to create the Jeu de Paume database. "A drawing is one of a kind—anything that runs through a press is not, and we are left to decide which series is it part of and what number is it and is it the right one?" he explains.
In birthing the database, Mr. Fisher oversaw a team of experts who gathered logs and photos from Paris, Berlin, Washington and other cities where Nazi archives of looted art had landed.
Their findings included key information about the 22,000 works that came through the Jeu de Paume.
The information—names of the original art owners, the type and makers of works seized and records of items returned—is organized to make it accessible to victims and heirs.
On a recent afternoon, in a computer room in the basement of the Harvard Club, where he is a member, Mr. Fisher gave an overview of the haunting treasures contained in the database.
"Do you want to see Rembrandts?" he offered.
The system immediately turned up records on 73 Rembrandts once owned by Jewish families. "Picasso" turned up 90 results. Additionally, there are mentions of 63 Renoirs, 53 Matisses, nine Gauguins, 19 Monets and six Leonardo Da Vincis—enough to burnish the walls of several museums. Pausing to survey some stolen Chagalls, he points to a watercolor titled "Russia Scene in the Snow." The owner is listed as "unknown," as is the case with many of stolen works.
To Mr. Fisher, the 22,000 works in the database are only "a drop in the bucket," of all the art seized in France, he says, let alone what the Nazis took from other European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and the former Soviet Union.
At times, conflicts within the Holocaust community itself made tracing artwork difficult. Some members of the museum community were also wary, since tracking Nazi art thefts likely meant questioning the provenance, or known history, of some items in their collections.
Under his tenure as president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, the businessman and Jewish leader who died Saturday, worked with the museum community in America to push for provenance research and greater transparency.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Fisher says, there was a general fear that a search for lost Jewish treasure would be perceived as mercenary. He recalls how even his employer at the time, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, balked. "The museum was scared," he contends. "It did not want to be seen as involved in property matters—it was concerned about possible stereotypes of Jews" as wealthy and mercenary.
Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who was instrumental in the museum's founding, confirms that years back he and others in the scholarly community were wary about delving into stolen art. He credits Mr. Fisher for seeing art looting as central to the Holocaust.
"The Holocaust is the story of life and death—mostly death—it is not a story of property," says Sara Bloomfield, the museum's current director. The museum eventually supported stolen-property research and is currently a host of the online database.
Mr. Fisher grew up steeped in the tragedy of the Holocaust. Several members of his own extended family had been murdered. His father, rabbi of a prominent Manhattan congregation, abandoned the pulpit to become an activist lawyer who volunteered for the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League. His dad organized national boycotts against German products and helped resettle Jewish refugees from the Nazis, including many physicians.
During the 1990s, Mr. Fisher helped to organize the "Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets," the first major intergovernmental meeting to address the art plundered by the Nazis. Co-hosted by the State Department and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it brought together delegates from 44 countries to define principles for what was termed "the unfinished business of the 20th century."
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate and Auschwitz survivor who was also a keynote speaker, plunged into the debate.
"Why has it taken so long in fulfilling the biblical command that stolen property must be returned to its owners?" Mr. Wiesel asked, according to a transcript.
By 2003, Mr. Fisher had moved over to the Claims Conference and began to make a case for the organization to delve into the issue. One colleague, Patricia Grimsted, a Harvard-based authority on World War II archives and stolen property, had persuaded him of the need to bring together the dispersed files of the Nazi ideologue and chief art looter, Alfred Rosenberg.
Rosenberg, a virulent anti-Semite who was ultimately tried and executed at Nuremberg, had founded a task force, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR. It engaged in the plunder of all manner of cultural valuables in Nazi-occupied countries. The ERR began not by stealing precious paintings but by confiscating holy books and Judaica—items the Nazis thought would help them in their obsession to understand the Jewish "race."
After the war, the ERR's records drifted to nine different countries and dozens of archival collections.
Ms. Grimsted felt strongly that the Rosenberg files should be centralized to help gain a true historical picture of the breadth of the Nazis' looting. Mr. Fisher lobbied the Claims Conference to bring together all the archival records and make them accessible to the public.
"He was constantly talking about reconstructing, bringing the pieces together, trying to make one database," recalls Greg Schneider, the Claims Conference executive vice president. "He was relentless."
Mr. Fisher got his way and the Claims Conference began in 2004 to work on bringing the disparate Rosenberg archives together. It also decided to fund a pilot project centered on the stolen art in France—the especially detailed archives related to the Jeu de Paume. Mr. Masurovsky was enlisted to create the actual database.
First, he set about digitizing the many note cards the Germans kept to document their thefts. He also consulted broader Nazi inventory records that listed the contents of Jewish homes. Only 15% of the identified 22,000 objects were actual canvas or oil paintings, he says. There were also many works on paper, as well as sculptures, furniture, fine jewelry, even African masks and ancient Egyptian torsos.
Photos of the pieces, taken by Nazi photographers, had ended up at Koblenz, Germany. These, too, proved crucial to the database.
Around 2006, Mr. Fisher says he encountered an unexpected obstacle. German authorities wouldn't reply to requests to add the photos to the online database.
"They were afraid the Nazi photographers would lay claim to these photographs," and sue, Mr. Fisher says.
The notion of being sued by the Third Reich's photographers struck him as absurd. "By all means, we would love such a lawsuit," he remembers saying.
Germany relented. But the Claims Conference had to agree to assume any legal liability.
A senior official from the German national archives says that the legal parameters were only one among several issues in a complex agreement that allowed the Claims Conference to post the photos to their online database.
The Claims Conference itself has fought off looters—even from within. A recent embezzlement scandal ensnared 31 people, including 10 former Claims Conference employees, who were accused of participating in a scheme to defraud the organization of more than $57 million. A May statement from the U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York said that the 31 were "convicted for their roles in the fraud." The group says that neither Mr. Fisher nor his work was involved in the ordeal.
As for the recent Munich discovery, information has come in piecemeal. By late December, German authorities had posted more than 400 pieces from the Gurlitt collection. To Mr. Fisher's frustration, the majority of the collection still hasn't been unveiled. He and others are anxious to do provenance research to figure out which artworks were taken from Jewish families.
A spokesman for the Gurlitt task force in Germany explained its logic for releasing images. "Thoroughness and care must take precedence over speed," he said, adding that works are being posted as quickly as possible.
He said that an international coalition of experts would attempt to determine which works were looted from Jews and that the Claims Conference has been invited to participate in the undertaking.
Mr. Fisher acknowledges there is no definitive proof that the Gurlitt lithograph is the one taken from Mrs. Van Cleef. There could have been multiple prints made from the original work. But "it looks awfully suspicious," he says.
Toulouse-Lautrec scholar Phillip Dennis Cate, when shown the images from the database and the German Gurlitt collection, said "it is a good possibility" that the two are one and the same. More provenance research is needed for a definitive finding, he said.
John Claude Arpels, a member of the jewelry family, says he is mystified by the Toulouse-Lautrec work, whose title refers to a famed Cancan dancer and her agile partner. Nazi records indicate it was seized in 1943 from Mrs. Van Cleef—one of 49 works taken from her home.
Esther Van Cleef, whom he knew as "Kiki," was his great aunt, his grandfather's sister. While he was born and raised in the U.S., he fondly remembers regular trips to Paris with his family, where they would enjoy luncheons at her Paris apartment.
Dr. Arpels says that while much of the immediate family made it out of France to safety during the war—including Mrs. Van Cleef, who fled to the U.S.—the shadow of the Holocaust still hung over them. He learned only recently that 80 to 100 of his relatives on the Van Cleef side perished. His own parents lost their art collection to the Nazis, he says.
Yet the family made peace with the past, he says, and didn't dwell on what was lost.
"Life went on and they were eternally grateful to be alive—they were not bowled over by the loss of materialistic booty to the Germans," says Dr. Arpels, a retired physician who lives in San Francisco.
Dr. Arpels says he plans to pursue the question of whether the Toulouse-Lautrec in the Gurlitt cache belongs to his family—but more as a matter of historical interest, he says.
Today, the jewelry house founded by his ancestors is owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, which purchased the business from the family in 1999.
Beyond the high-value pieces in the Gurlitt collection, Mr. Fisher is haunted by what he calls "the painting over the mantelpiece"— the symbolic image of a canvas, most likely modest, that might have hung in a Jewish home when the Germans came.
Survivors and heirs still cling to memories of such a familiar painting as their last link to what they lost in the Holocaust, says Mr. Fisher.
"We represent the dead," he says. "When you are talking about the artwork over the mantelpiece, most of the time it is no longer known what it was because the people were shot or gassed."
Corrections & Amplifications
Roughly 1,400 works were seized from a Munich apartment in early 2012, an action that was disclosed last month. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the works were seized last month.
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