During the reign of the Third Reich, Nazis stole countless pieces of art owned by Jews. Many of these paintings remained hidden for decades but eventually ended up in art museums around the world. The more widespread this practice became, the better the chances of someone recognizing a work of art that belonged to a family, a former neighbor, or a friend.
Some American museums have been accused of blocking claims via legal means, not being forthcoming with information regarding the artwork in question, and imposing deadlines to file a claim. Museum officials, however, say restitution requests are handled “quickly” and with high ethical standards. It takes time to do the research, especially when documentation is missing or sketchy. They only enforce deadlines when a claim is deemed not valid.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York has documented their research regarding the ownership history of Pablo Picasso’s Le Moulin de la Galette. This painting was the subject of litigation. The issue was whether or not it was sold under duress. It was determined that it was not and that the Nazis did not seize it. This report provides a look at why these claims can take a long time.
In 1998, the United States was one of 44 nations that signed the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. This document recognized that even though countries have different legal systems and different laws, every effort must be made to identify the art and return it to the heirs. Any information regarding identification, claims, etc., was to be put in a central registry.
The Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States issued a lengthy report in December, 2000, titled “Plunder and Restitution.” It covered everything from the different monetary currencies in use to restitution procedures in Europe and the U.S. A section in the report outlines the cooperation of museums in aiding the restitution process:
Regarding delays and legal proceedings: “While most claims for restitution of looted cultural property have been successfully resolved, the process of resolution has sometimes required lengthy and expensive litigation. Because survivors are generally in the last years of their lives, any delays are prejudicial.”
Regarding American museums’ commitment: “American museums have committed themselves to provide public access to information about Holocaust-era works in their collections. At the Commission’s hearing in New York on April 12, 2000 several museum directors reaffirmed their policies for disclosure of provenance for Holocaust-era works in their collections. The policies were developed separately by the individual museums, and therefore differed in scope and methodology.”
It went on to say that several museums had already returned confiscated art to the rightful owners, and specifically mentioned the Seattle Art Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Denver Art Museum. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was also mentioned because of an agreement with the heirs that allowed the museum to keep the painting.
After a meeting between the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the Alliance of American Museums (AAM), and the Presidential Advisory Committee on Holocaust Assets in the United States, the AAM created a website that is a searchable registry of art stolen by the Nazis. There are currently 28,882 objects from 173 participating museums in the registry. The website is the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal.
Cynthia Collins, Museum Correspondent