State of the Art: Finding the heirs

Genealogists and art organizations collaborate to locate heirs of Nazi-era art looted, confiscated or sold by force.

Karen Franklin of New York remembers the stormy night she stood in the pouring rain in the heart of the Venice Ghetto and solved an art restitution case by locating heirs in record time. Franklin was at a museum conference when she received a frantic e-mail from the Netherlands' Origins Unknown Agency, asking for urgent help to find descendants of the Larsen family before a statute of limitations deadline ran out. Her hotel's internet connection was very expensive - when it worked, but Chabad had wireless, she learned, so Franklin went and stood outside with her laptop in the rain and used a variety of online sources, including a New York Times marriage notice for a niece, which identified colleges attended by the couple. Their alumni offices helped locate and notify them. She shows the e-mail she sent at 6:59 pm. Rushing into a 7 pm dinner with colleagues - and looking like a drowned rat - she shouted "Eureka!" Even though her laptop later failed from water damage and Franklin will likely never be recognized for solving the case - it might be worth millions - she's satisfied. The heirs have since filed a claim. It is an example, she says, of how genealogists can trace heirs to art works. There is no such thing as an heirless item, it just requires deeper digging. Genealogy is not just about the names of dead people on a list, or DNA or Holocaust victims, it is now also about art restitution. Online resources used to solve cases include JewishGen, ProQuest, maps, Yad Vashem, the Leo Baeck archives, the Center for Jewish History, newspaper obituaries and other life cycle announcements (engagements, marriages), Ancestry and even eBay. Art restitution today utilizes three approaches: international and genealogical collaboration as well as artifact exhibits. Collaboration brings together archivists, local historians and other experts around the world, whose combined but different research approaches are effective in solving cases. Genealogical cooperation is a useful strategy for provenance research, as partnering with genealogists enhances tracing of family members. Public exhibits provide valuable research information and raise awareness about the looting of Jewish property, the real owners and related issues. At the recently-concluded 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, held this year in Utah, Franklin provided an overview of Nazi-era looted art issues in North American and European Jewish museums, and discussed how Jewish genealogical research has been utilized to help solve ongoing cases in the Netherlands and the UK. Franklin is director of the Leo Baeck Institute's Family Research Program in New York. A genealogist and past president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, she is also a coordinator of GERsig, a special interest group for those researching German Jewish roots. Former director of the Judaica Museum of the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale and past chair of the Council of American Jewish Museums, Franklin has served on the American Association of Museums board and currently serves on the American National Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM-US), in addition to positions for other national and international organizations. She researches major cases for the Origins Unknown Agency and the Looted Art Commission, and authored a January 2007 resolution of the Council of American Jewish Museums discussing how these issues affect claimants and the Jewish community. She also speaks around the world. Provenance research is an international discipline, just as the art and cultural property it traces are international in origin and influence. In 2004, for example, North American specialists met with western and central European colleagues to exchange information. The emphasis was on WWII issues including Nazi elite collections, recreation of historic family collections, case studies of object provenance, resources and 20th century art trade. Franklin's personal involvement in art restitution began in October 2001, when the Judaica Museum received an 18th-century pewter Seder plate, called the Hoffman Plate. The letter with the gift explained that the plate was"taken from the home of a Jewish family when they were deported in 1942," in the Wiesbaden area. Then the director, Franklin accepted the gift with the provision that the museum would trace the plate's provenance and return it if it proved appropriate. The plate is inscribed in Hebrew as belonging to Wolf, son of Mordechai and Meschacha, daughter of Rabbi Eliyahu (of?) Do(e)rnbach. Strategies included exploring its history by identifying the town and the owners. Jewish genealogists identified seven possible German villages, and Langendernbach was near the donor's original family home. After 1717, Jews of several villages, including Langendernbach, founded the combined Jewish community of Ellar. A local German historian discovered three generations of family documents in the community's archives. The search took almost five years, including travel to Israel and Germany. The plate was displayed four times in Germany and seen by more than a million people. In Cologne, the caption read "Have you seen this plate before? Can you help identify its original owner?" Several people stepped forward to identify the family who owned it and where they came from. "We discovered, much to our surprise, that the original story was indeed true," said Franklin. Most of the original owner's family was deported - except the owner herself, whose non-Jewish husband probably saved her by his alleged collaboration with the Nazis. He may have gone into Jewish homes and collected items after families were deported. Although the couple who owned the plate traded post-war in looted art, the plate was most likely actually a family heirloom. Franklin visited the town and displayed the plate, asking if anyone knew its history or had any items taken from Jews that they knew about. "One man actually came forward and told us a story about his family and their furniture which originally belonged to a Jewish family… it does happen," she stressed. The abovementioned Larsen case hinged on identification of an heir to Dutch paintings on display in the Netherlands at a 2006 exhibit, "Looted, but from Whom?" displaying some 50 looted paintings and art objects to tell the story of intensive investigative work by the Origins Unknown Agency. The exhibit website tells the story of tens of thousands of artworks belonging to private Jewish individuals that wound up in Germany. The possessions had been lost through forced sales, looting or confiscation. Post-war, many objects were returned to the Netherlands with the intention of locating the owners, although this wasn't possible for many of them. The 1998 Ekkart Committee showed it was possible to trace some owners, and the Dutch government instructed the Origins Unknown Agency to try to find the original owners. On July 6, 1939, paintings from the collection of Hans Ludwig Larsen (Berlin, July 13, 1892-Wassenaar, November 3, 1937) were loaned to a Leiden museum by his widow. In 1943, a German administrator ordered the paintings sent to a Hague auction house. The auction catalogue printer's proof indicates they were to be auctioned on January 25, 1943, but they were sold pre-sale, acquired for the Fuhrermuseum in Linz, and were not in the official catalogue. Franklin helped "break" the case by identifying the Larsen family heirs on that stormy night in Venice. Several years ago, a German woman contacted Beit Hatefutsot (the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora located at Tel Aviv University) to see if it could help find the original Jewish owners of her family's furniture and children's toys, including a miniature porcelain tea set and a doll. "At the time, we couldn't help her," says genealogy department director Haim Ghiuzeli. In July of this year, however, Ghiuzeli attended Franklin's program at the annual international Jewish genealogy conference, and told her about the message. Although it wasn't about art objects, he told Franklin, the story might make news if there were to be a happy ending. "Karen sat up, her eyes opened wide and she was very enthusiastic," he recalls. He returned to Tel Aviv, located the e-mail and sent it to Franklin who contacted the woman who wishes to remain anonymous - at least until the heirs are located. The items come from southern Germany, where her paternal grandparents sold vegetables in a weekend city market. At an early age, she was told that her tea set and doll were purchased in the late 1930s from a Jewish family - her grandparents' customers - who wanted to emigrate to Palestine. Her father later told her that nearly all their household furnishings came from that Jewish family, including chairs, tables, wardrobes, desks and serving tables. She always had questions: Why did her grandmother help them? Why did she buy girls' toys when she only had a son? Had they been in touch later? What happened to the family's house? Where are they now? Could the little girl who played with those toys still be alive? This story directly connects her to those terrible times, and she wants to find the family who sold their possessions to her grandparents. "Ghiuzeli's vigilance in following up on the message may result in a restitution far more significant than the monetary value of the property," adds Franklin, who stresses that collaboration between genealogists, local historians, archivists and museums helps looted Nazi-era artifacts - whether art or children's toys - return to their original families. On Tuesday, September 4, Franklin will speak in Ra'anana on "State of the Art: Resolution and Restitution," provide an overview of Nazi-era looted art issues in Jewish museums in the US and Europe, and discuss how Jewish genealogical research has helped solve ongoing European cases. Doors open at 7 pm at the Jewish Family Research Association at Beit Fisher, 5 Rehov Klausner. The program is open to the public. E-mail reservations are recommended, via Ingrid Rockberger, JFRA members, NIS 5; others, NIS 20.