Israeli museum hopes to solve mystery of looted painting

The Guardian 16 December 2015
By Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem

Eugeniusz Zak’s painting The Beggar, recently identified as stolen by the Nazis, being used to raise awareness about plundered artworks

The Beggar by Eugeniusz Zak Photograph: The Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets

The Beggar by Eugeniusz (Eugene) Zak – a Jewish-artist born near Minsk, who lived and painted in Paris in the 1920s – depicts an elderly figure in orange clothes and with a sign around his neck in front of a purple building. For over half a century it has hung in the Museum of Art, in Ein Harod, Israel, but how it came to be there had not been questioned by curators. Until last year that is.

Looted in Paris by the Nazis, the story of Zak’s painting, and how it ended up Israel, is a testament to the continuing story not only of so-called orphaned works of art, where the owners cannot be traced – but also the complex and continuing politics of the identification and restitution of stolen Nazi art. The work was only recently identified as stolen by a visiting Polish graduate student, studying art stolen from the period.

“It was discovered last year,” Galia Bar Or, the museum’s director, said. “A researcher had a hunch and we took off the backing paper.” What was revealed was a Nazi official stamp showing it had been looted in Paris. The fortuitous discovery of the provenance of the Zak painting is a stark reminder that even after so many decades the issue of art looted by the Nazis from European Jews – including art held by museums – remains and fraught and sensitive subject.

In 2014 an international conference on the issue of restitution disclosed that some two-thirds of countries that had signed treaties on identifying art stolen by the Nazis had not met their obligations to identify stolen art held by collectors and museums.

According to Israel Peleg, the director of Hashava – the Holocaust restitution company – Israeli institutions have not been exempt from this, unwittingly holding and displaying stolen works of art, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, brought to Israel – some of which have since been returned, including by the Israel Museum.

“We know that after the war, at least 400 pieces of art reached the shores of Israel and the museums in Israel,” Peleg said, last year. And while some paintings arrived after being sold on, others arrived as part of a programme to rescue Jewish and Jewish owned-art and artefacts. The Beggar, it appears, is part of this story: brought to Israel by Mordechai Narkiss, regarded as one of state of Israel’s first serious art historians and curators.

Born in Poland, Narkiss emigrated to British mandate Palestine in 1920, where five years later he would be appointed the first director of the newly established Bezalel Museum – later the Israel Museum – becoming among other things, an expert in the neglected field of Jewish objects from Islamic countries.

But it was a decade after the end of world war two that Narkiss would be drawn into another important project. By the end of the war, the allies had found well over a million looted art objects from across the Reich. While some were returned to owners or their heirs, a large trove of orphaned art remained.

The allies ruled that heirless property or property in “excess of capacity to preserve” should be distributed among Jewish communities in Europe, Palestine, America and elsewhere. So in the early 1950s Narkiss, in his role as director of the national museum was invited to Europe to select from what remained of that orphaned art, bringing back to Israel about 1,200 objects of Judaica, paintings and works on paper. Among these, it now seems certain, was Zak’s painting.

Ein Harod, it must have seemed then, was a logical destination. A newly built museum, first founded in a wooden shed on a kibbutz in the 1930s, it was collecting art by Jewish painters from Europe who worked in the period between the wars, whose careers had been cut short by the global conflagration and Holocaust.

“In the 40s and 50s Ein Harod was collecting art from what we called the ‘lost generation’,” says Bar Or. “Many of artists gathering in Paris between the wars were just starting their careers. For many no one even knows their names. The curator here at the time was very much dedicated to keeping alive the memory of these artists.” Finding Zak’s painting on one of his collection trips to Europe in one of the allied stores, Narkiss it is now believed, passed it on to Ein Harod. Over the intervening decades, how it came to be in the museum was forgotten.

Elinor Kroitoru of Hashava takes up the story after the revelation of the Nazi stamp. “The stamp enabled [the researcher],” Kroitoru told the Times of Israel, “to go to the appropriate data bank and there she found the catalogue card filled out by the Nazis after they’d confiscated it. The card included information about the painting, but not about the owners.

“That same card, belonging to the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or Reichsleiter Rosenberg taskforce, a Nazi organisation that seized cultural property during the war) revealed that the painting had been stolen in Paris as part of a drive to confiscate Jewish property.” But there is still much that is unknown about the painting, including who its owners were. Zak died in 1926, enjoying some fame after his death. And as other other works of art were distributed around Europe – or destroyed because the artists were Jewish, Zak’s painting was stored in Paris.

These days The Beggar is hanging in the Green House cultural space in Tel Aviv where Peleg hopes its display will prompt further clues about the work and who owned it. He hopes too it will raise awareness about other looted artworks, still unidentified, that may be in museums around the world.
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