The art of restitution

The controversial issue of Nazi-looted art is put in the spotlight as the Israel Museum opens two exhibitions of 'orphaned' paintings and artifacts looking for owners.

By
February 14, 2008 11:51
The art of restitution

Art resitution 224. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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The painting La Procession hangs nondescriptly in the Tel Aviv apartment of Ruth and Chaim Haller. Completed in 1927 by Lucien Adrion, the piece of art was one of approximately 1,000 works that Dr. Ismar Littmann, a German Jew and Ruth Haller's father, had collected over the years. The entire Littmann collection, some valuable, some just treasures to the family, was auctioned off at a forced sale at the Max Perl auction house in Berlin in 1934; later that year Littmann committed suicide. Ruth Haller, who escaped from Germany and moved to Palestine just before the war, filed a claim with the New York State Banking Department in the spring of 1998 after discovering that La Procession had been put up for auction in Germany. Through the efforts of the department's Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) the painting was eventually returned to Haller a year later. At the time, she said, "We are thrilled to have the painting returned to us... it has also helped to ensure that my father's significant collection continues to be recognized and given the attention it deserves." Today, Haller, 87, incapacitated by a stroke, can only look at La Procession on her wall. A few other paintings from the Littmann collection have also been returned to her over the years, through various sales in Germany, Norway and London, but most is probably lost forever. The Littmann family story is just one of thousands of cases in which Holocaust survivors or their families are attempting to reclaim part of their heritage that was stripped away during the Nazi purge of Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish-owned artworks, by some estimates worth up to $30 billion in current value, were looted and displaced in Europe between 1933 and 1945. But whether a painting is priceless or worthless, for the families of Holocaust victims each item is the mother lode, possibly the only remnant left of the family's prewar life. Through Allied efforts, some of the looted art was recovered soon after the war and returned to its owners or their families. But most of the artwork has been shrouded in mystery for decades. According to Marilyn Henry, author of Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference, the process of reclaiming looted art has always been one of the most prickly of all Holocaust restitution issues. "Countless Nazi victims spent decades trying to find artworks that once belonged to their families. It was a lonely search. The burden was on the victim to find what had been taken, to prove it belonged to him and to convince whoever had it to give it back," she says from her home in New York. "Imagine looking for a needle in a haystack, finding the needle, and being told by the haystack owner that you had to prove you owned the needle before the war, and then convince him that he should return the needle to you." Despite efforts by organizations, government commissions and legal specialists, many survivors and families have never made it out of that first stage - they're still looking for the needle. Although, as with the Littmann family, a few paintings have made their way back to the original owner, the fate of most Holocaust-era artwork stolen by the Nazis remains unknown. Some was destroyed, some occasionally crops up in private collections or in art auctions, and other pieces are likely hanging on walls or stored in the basements of museums in Europe, the US - and in Israel. TWO HIGH-PROFILE cases concerning the Israel Museum exemplify how looted art can unknowingly wind up in museums. And they further exemplify how, even in the Jewish state, the issue of ownership is not so clear cut. In 2000, the museum announced that it had transferred Boulevard Montmartre: Spring (1897), a painting by Camille Pissarro, to the daughter-in-law of Max Silberberg, a Jewish industrialist and collector from Breslau, Germany. According to the museum, representatives of the Silberberg estate learned of the circumstances of the disposition of works in Silberberg's collection, including Boulevard Montmartre, on the basis of information obtained from archives in the former East Germany made available for the first time following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The painting had been sold at auction in Berlin in 1935 and it passed through a number of hands until its sale in 1960 to John and Frances L. Loeb. The couple bequeathed Boulevard Montmartre to the American Friends of the Israel Museum following John Loeb's death in 1996. "It was the first major claim to come to the museum, and we took the view that we should try to be exemplary in its handling," says Israel Museum director James Snyder, sitting in his stylish Jerusalem office adorned with tasteful art and artifacts. "It was a sale which, a few years after 1935, would have easily been characterized as a forced sale. But in 1935 it was sold in a single owner sale in Berlin and achieved record prices. However, the owner kept all his assets in Germany and they were soon gone and they died in the Holocaust. So we took the view it was the same 'as if' it had happened later." However Snyder added that since the painting had made its way to the Israel Museum by legal means, there was some justification in trying to achieve an arrangement whereby the museum would make restitution but be allowed to keep it for an extended period as a loan to the museum. The end result was that the painting's title was returned to the Silberberg estate, but that it remains on view in the Israel Museum with explanatory text and credit label which recognize its ownership history. "It encapsulates the whole history of looted art - for us it was fascinating experience," says Snyder. "We see it in the way of a model for the restitution of claims, because we recognized the depth of meaning of the story, made the restitution, and they recognized the appropriateness of extending themselves to us because of the nature of the gift to us and because the work happened to make its way to Jerusalem. "It's a long-term loan which has given visibility to the idea of restitution. As much as there was a history in the loss of Max Silberberg, it was equally important that it was owned for an even longer time by the Loebs, who also acquired it innocently." Not so, claims Marilyn Henry, who said that the pre- and postwar ownerships don't share equal weight. "How long someone owns it is not the issue. The only relevant issue, the moral issue, is how Max Silberberg came to lose it. He was a victim of Nazi persecution," she says. "The current owner is not the thief. It's important to remember that this is really about how the Nazis and their collaborators took the art away from the Jews - to remember how the victims came to lose it, and not who has it now. We need to put the focus back on the Nazis. Instead of long, drawn-out court cases with the heirs fighting against the museums, the big issue should be 'who took the paintings.'" A more recent Israel Museum case concerned the restitution of Four Nude Female Dancers Resting (ca. 1898), a charcoal drawing by Edgar Degas, to the daughter-in-law of Jacques Goudstikker, a noted Dutch art dealer who died while fleeing the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. The painting was confiscated by the Nazis in 1940 from his inventory. "Goudstikker actually inventoried his collection and put it in a trust with someone. He was on a ship taking him and his wife to Havana and he died in a fluke accident - he was walking on a deck in the dark and fell into an open hatch," says Snyder. While there is no record of a purchase of Four Nudes taking place, the drawing showed up in the collection of Myrtil Frank of The Hague in the postwar years. It was included in the exhibition "A Loan Exhibition of Degas for the Benefit of the New York Infirmary, April 7-May 14, 1949" at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York; and it was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Jan Mitchell from the Marlborough Gallery in 1966. The Mitchells donated the drawing to the Israel Museum through the America-Israel Cultural Foundation in 1970. Following the claim and an investigation by the museum, the work was returned to the family in 2005. "It's not that we're holier than others," says Snyder. "We're as likely to have a complicated claim where it won't be so easy to achieve a happy result." TWO EXHIBITIONS which are opening this month (February 19 through June 3) at the museum are attempting, as Henry says, to turn the focus away from who has the art now to who should rightfully have it. One is called "Looking for Owners: Custody, Research, and Restitution of Art Stolen in France during World War II," an exhibition of more than 50 paintings and drawings. The exhibition, organized in conjunction with the French Foreign Affairs and Culture and Communications ministries, features the work of major European artists, including Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat. According to Snyder, about 60,000 pieces of art taken from France and brought to Germany - either looted or sold - were repatriated to France after the war. A national body called the Mattéoli Commission was formed in 1997 by then-prime minister Alain Juppé to study the matter of Jewish property restitution in France and how France should finally resolve the matter of stolen property that had not been restituted in many categories, including fine art. "Over time, some pieces that were easily identified were returned to families, some families regifted them or sold them back to the national museum, and some had no history of ownership," says Snyder. Those pieces - called the Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR) - are now stored, or exhibited in museums throughout France, including the Louvre, Musée d'Orsay and Centre Georges Pompidou. "As part of the work of the commission, there was a recommendation made in 1999 that those objects finally be fully catalogued and published in the continuing of interest of finding appropriate homes, and that there be a project with the Israel Museum to display some of the works," says Snyder. An on-line list of the unclaimed French collection was posted in by the Museums Department of the French Culture and Communication Ministry (www.culture.gouv.fr), while a catalog of the paintings was published in France in 2004. While there are a handful of treasures in the collections, Snyder claims that much of the art is not museum-worthy. "Often there's the mistaken notion that everything stolen in the Holocaust was a masterpiece, when in fact the reverse is the case - much of what was stolen in fact is not in the masterpiece category," he says. Isabelle le Masne de Chermont, the French curator who coordinated the exhibit with the Israel Museum, says that the exhibit includes works looted from unknown owners, works stolen from Jewish families that were returned following the war and subsequently purchased by the state, and works bought in the French art market by German museums and private individuals during the war. Only about 10 percent of the artwork, however, is considered looted art. Henry says that while the exhibit is a positive step, France could be doing a lot more in its transparency regarding the looted art it still possesses, pointing to French national pride as one obstacle. "Talk to a French person about Pissarro, and they say he was a French painter. But Pissarro was Jewish, so we see him as a Jewish artist in France. We are each claiming that the same artist is part of two distinct national heritages," she says. According to le Masne de Chermont, the French are trying to be as forthcoming as possible, including publishing a catalog which will be available at the exhibition and will contain provenance information about this history of each piece of art exhibited ("as much as we have," she said) to expedite potential identification. "Each time we publish the photos, or put on an exhibition, or display the art on a Web site, we hope that we will be able to find its original owner or their family. Of course, now it's getting more and more difficult," le Masne de Chermont says. ANOTHER OBSTACLE which has, until now, prevented France from exhibiting the looted art in its collection had been its insistence that Israel pass legislation guaranteeing the art couldn't be claimed by Holocaust survivors or their families. It didn't want a repeat of a 1998 Museum of Modern Art controversy in New York in which attorney-general Robert Morgenthau issued a subpoena to detain paintings by Egon Schiele which were on loan from the Leopold Foundation in Vienna. The law, called Immunity from Seizure for Loans to Israel, initiated by the Israel Museum and shepherded through the Knesset by the Education, Culture and Sports Committee and its chairman MK Michael Melchior (Labor), passed in early 2007. According to its supporters, the law increased the chances of survivors locating their stolen art by making the art more accessible and by creating mechanisms in the country that's lending the art to make a claim in an efficient manner. Its detractors say it's a shameful blemish on Israel which adds salt to the wounds of Holocaust survivors and their families. "The law was a long time in the making. I was originally approached by officials in France many years ago when I was minister - they wanted a guarantee that if they brought art to Israel that it could not be seized under Israeli law if somebody made a claim on it," says Melchior. "Initially, I was very negative to the whole approach, which was that there would be no overtures of any kind to return art to the Jews of France. I thought that the whole approach was an insult, and therefore I didn't support any legislation." However, over time, Melchior changed his mind and threw his support behind the bill after a series of clauses were inserted that, in essence, puts the burden on the lending country. "I think it's now a good law, which gives the chance to expose stolen art, and provides a mechanism for those who want to make a claim to go through a straightforward process in order to regain their art," he says. "The lending country is required to publish the history of the art prior to being exhibited and provide a way for people to make a claim on it. In return, we guarantee that the art is returned to the country of origin, otherwise the art would never come here to be exposed." According to Snyder, who was instrumental in pushing the law through, the point of the legislation is to ensure the claim on the art is made in the country of origin, and that the country of origin has to make a mechanism available for adjudicating a claim. "The French asked for this law to be put in place, because they felt that if an owner of one of the pieces did appear, the work should come back to France, and the claim should be made there, because France is the custodian of the material," he says. "The Mattéoli Commission made stipulations that the French had to set up a mechanism to adjudicate the claims that would arise so as to complete the distribution of assets to the extent possible. Their mechanism is a tribunal and Web site that's been set up for any kind of material claim - property, bank assets, art." Melchior pointed out that the Immunity from Seizure for Loans law stipulates that the Justice Ministry must study the mechanism of the lending country and "determine whether the country in question, in this case France, has established the sufficient apparatus according to the law, for addressing claims." According to Snyder, claims can be made on the site (in a number of languages, including Hebrew), and once a year, the tribunal is slated to come here and adjudicate the claims. "Even the strongest opponents ended up supporting the law, including all the survivor groups," says Melchior. Avraham Roet, chairman of the Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of People Who Were Killed in the Holocaust Ltd. - the body established by the government last year with the task of identifying and returning property which was absorbed into Israeli bodies to heirs of Jews killed in the Holocaust - is one of those detractors who came around. "There's no problem with the immunity law at all. It's a good law, as far as I'm concerned, if it helps bring exhibits from other countries here and enables people to identify pieces from their family," he says. But Tel Aviv attorney Joel Levi who handles many restitution cases differed in that assessment. The 70-year-old attorney has been involved in assisting the Hallers in identifying pieces from the Littmann collection. He's spent the past decade looking for a lot of needles. "I fought this law as much as I could in the Knesset. It's a hindrance, and Mr. Snyder has done grave damage with this law to the efforts to return prewar art. One has to read it, and you won't believe it's an Israeli law," he says. Henry calls the legislation part of the predicament in which Israel finds itself. "It needs an immunity law that satisfies the international standard for art loans, and it must simultaneously protect the interests of Holocaust survivors and their heirs who have claims for Nazi-looted art," she says. Other countries are in various stages of enacting similar laws. In January, after an exhibit of works by Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne and other masterpieces from Russian museums was put in jeopardy, the British government rushed into effect a law giving loaned foreign artworks immunity from seizure. The Royal Academy of Arts' blockbuster exhibition "From Russia" included 120 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works - many seized by the Soviet state after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The show was canceled by Russian authorities, who said families of the paintings' original owners might go to court to get them back while they were in London, but the last-minute legislation brought the exhibition back to life. According to Snyder, looted art is only a small part of the issue regarding the law. "It's not about World War II stolen art - it really applies to any kind of material - national patrimony, archeology, anything where someone can scoop in, and make a claim and try seize something on loan to another country," he says. While immunity from seizure laws seem like an inevitability if museums are going to continue to request and accept exhibitions from foreign countries, the Israeli law, with the French exhibit now about to open, leaves an unsettling feeling for some. "If you feel compelled to have immunity from seizure, and you're the Jewish state, the heir and representative of the Jewish people, then the first exhibit on which you insist on immunity for should not be the one where you're trying to find the owners of Nazi-looted art," says Henry. "By doing that, you're teasing and saying, 'You can look but you better not touch.'" A SECOND exhibit at the museum doesn't have to deal with any immunity laws, but nonetheless, has its own built-in controversy. "Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust in the Israel Museum" is culled from 1,200 such works held in custody by the museum, all of which lack clear ownership history. "Orphaned Art" features more than 50 paintings, drawings, prints and books, together with a selection of Jewish ceremonial objects, and includes such artists as Jan Both, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Marc Chagall, Egon Schiele and Alfred Sisley. Following the war, the Jewish Restitution Service Organization (JRSO) was charged with the responsibility for looted Jewish cultural properties that had been found by the Allies and brought into the US occupation zone in Germany. "There was a team from the US that came to deal with what was left over after all the obvious stuff had been distributed. JRSO was designated to take what was left and distribute it among appropriate Jewish institutions, worldwide and in pre-state Palestine," explains Snyder. In the early 1950s, Mordechai Narkiss, the director of the Bezalel National Museum, the predecessor of the Israel Museum, was invited to Europe to select from what remained of that art. He brought back about 1,200 objects of Judaica, paintings and works on paper that hadn't been returned to their owners - in their own way, "orphans" of the Holocaust. Most had belonged to either communities or institutions that didn't survive the war - such as synagogues and Jewish homes for the aged or museums - or they had absolutely no record of prior ownership. "So, we've had these 1,200 pieces - of which perhaps a dozen and a half have significant art value. Most of the rest of it is of sentimental or emotional importance - something like 700 items of Judaica, menorot and ceremonial objects, many of which are broken or damaged, about 200 paintings and 300 works on paper. Of the paintings and paper works, about half are by anonymous artists and a third are by artists nobody ever heard of, so effectively they're anonymous as well," says Snyder. According to attorney Joel Levi and the Company's Avraham Roet, the exhibit resulted from pressure put on the Israel Museum following the 2005 passage of the Law for Property of Holocaust Victims which established the Company as the rightful owner of all orphan property, deeds, bank accounts and art objects. They said the museum was unrightfully hoarding the collection and began a campaign to take over custodianship. "Let's put it this way - we had some problems convincing the Israel Museum of the rights of the Company to these artifacts," says Roet. "But the law claims that every artifact in Israel should be returned to the heirs of the victims. The museum had some problems initially realizing that this also included art, but we had some discussions, and we all see it the same way now." "The museum was keeping the works locked away in a cellar, and saying that they weren't worth anything," adds Levi. "We'll see on February 19." Snyder calls the accusations an "inaccurate and inappropriate assault," and that the matter had been sorted out with the Company. "When these forces were accusing us of hoarding the works, we told them to come and see what we've got - two great paintings, six good paintings and 1,200 miserable orphans," he says. "Of the 1,200 things we have, we would be very happy to return 1,000 of them to happy homes. But we won't give them up just for the hell of it - we were charged to be their custodian. "It's the myth of treasure. The idea of doing a show with 50 works - was to pick out the best of what we have - they're solid pictures, more interesting visually than historically. But we felt it would be better to tell the story so people would begin to absorb the fact that it's not that great treasures are being hoarded and not being returned to their heirs." OCCASIONALLY, SOMEONE will surface to make a claim on one of the pieces - like Londoner Hazel Stein. "I was contacted by a company in Germany that traces assets, and they had records that showed that my grandfather - who was from Munich - had works of art confiscated or stolen before the war," Stein says in a phone call. "The company wrote to the Israel Museum and asked to check if the pieces were part of the JRSO collection, and they discovered that they were. One is an Italian print, and the other a Dutch 17th-century painting in terrible condition. I've donated money to the museum to restore it and it will be given to them as a gift." Snyder said that the museum has completed cataloguing the vast number of pieces, and the list now appears as a link on the museum site. But additional information on most of the pieces is nonexistent, making the chances that they'll ever be claimed very remote. Some claimants say that the museum hasn't been so forthcoming in helping to identify pieces they think belong to them. Sometimes there's a gray area, one that Rehovot resident Pnina Yakir has become immersed in. Yakir, 56, is sure that the museum archives are holding some of the pieces stolen from her family, the Gluckseligs of Vienna, but for her to prove it, she needs to see the pieces. The museum says unless she has proof the pieces belong to her, they won't show them to her. "My grandfather Samuel was an antique expert and had a huge collection of Judaica and paintings in the house," says Yakir. "The Nazis came and took everything there was, both in his shop and in the house. Because he was such an expert, they approached him about working with them to help appraise the pieces they were confiscating. But he was a proud Jew and refused, so they sent him to the death camps in Poland." Yakir's father, Richard, escaped Austria just after Kristallnacht for England and then to Palestine. He returned to Vienna in 1945 to search for his family, but didn't find anyone. With a family friend who was also an antique expert, Richard compiled a list of some of the items that had been in the family home. "Last August, I became aware for the first time that the Israel Museum had a collection when I saw it on the Internet," says Yakir. "When I turned to the museum for permission to look in the archives, they weren't very cooperative. They said first I need proof that it belongs to my family. But often the proof is on the back of the piece - some kind of symbol or signature or dedication that wouldn't mean anything to anyone except the family." Yakir said that while she's waiting for the JRSO exhibition to start, she's discouraged because of the small percentage of pieces on display. Therefore, she turned to attorney Joel Levi to represent her. Levi said that he's confident that if the Company takes control of the JRSO collection, which it's attempting to do, then it will make the archives readily available and its criteria for proving ownership will be more lenient than the museum's more stringent requirements. The Company's Roet is satisfied with the compromise Orphan exhibit and is hopeful it will bear fruit for some lucky families. "I'm optimistic that the exhibit will result in some pieces being identified, and I'm convinced that the museum will return any piece that someone finds in the collection that belonged to his family," he says. Hazel Stein, who ended up learning about the existence of her grandfather's art by chance, doesn't expect the exhibition to result in any discoveries of the kind with which she's been blessed. "How will anyone even know something belongs to their family? The actual owners won't be alive, and there's not likely to be any documentation. I'm fortunate - my family kept birth and death certificates, and my grandparents survived the war." Snyder sees both the French and the JRSO exhibits as test cases of whether there really is still a chance 60 years after the Holocaust for a significant number of looted art pieces to be returned, or if the opportunity has been missed. "If nobody comes forward, it means perhaps that they really are orphans. And if they are in custody of appropriate cultural institutions, then those are appropriate places for them to stay," he says. "If, on the other hand, these mechanisms of posting Web sites, digitizing images and holding exhibitions does surface someone that discovers something from his family's heritage with legitimate claims, if this procedure actually allows them to make the claim, the claim is adjudicated and the piece returned, it really is a verification of the efficacy of the procedure." For Ruth Haller, for Hazel Stein and for Pnina Yakir, the quest to regain stolen art that belonged to their families has nothing to do with money and everything to do with restoring something which the Nazis destroyed. "The financial motivation doesn't mean anything to me, even though many of the pieces that were stolen are probably very valuable," says Yakir. "What drives me is the continuation of the work of my father, who spent his whole life trying to find part of the family collection. Continuing his will and connecting the roots of our family is what this is about." "I had no idea these pieces existed," adds Stein. "It's just the connection, isn't it? There's really nothing else."

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