NY museums scramble to acknowledge Nazi-looted art

The MoMA’s move comes as a new bill mandates that museums will be required to have signage acknowledging that stolen works were Nazi-looted.

 THE MAIN entrance of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  (photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)
THE MAIN entrance of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
(photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

NEW YORK – At the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan, curators are busily sifting through the extensive collection to determine what, if anything, was stolen from Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. The museum is home to about 800 paintings that “were or could have been in continental Europe during the Nazi era,” according to their website. 

The MoMA’s move comes as a new state bill mandates that artwork and artifacts stolen in Europe during World War II, now on display in New York museums, will be required to have signage acknowledging that they were Nazi-looted. 

The bill is part of a legislative bundle signed by New York Governor Kathy Hochul earlier this month, aimed at honoring Holocaust survivors. It requires that museums in the Empire State, home to nearly 40,000 Holocaust survivors, display a placard or sign alongside pieces of art from before 1945 that are known to have been looted or sold against the owner’s will under Nazi rule. According to the legislation text, the Germans stole 600,000 works of art during the Nazi era, about 100,000 of which remain missing. 

In response to the new law, local museums are taking action to assess the grim history of some of their artifacts. 

Museum statements

'Gurlitt: Status Report - Nazi Art Theft and its Consequences' exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany, November 2, 2017. (credit: REUTERS)'Gurlitt: Status Report - Nazi Art Theft and its Consequences' exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany, November 2, 2017. (credit: REUTERS)

In a statement to The Jerusalem Post, a spokesperson for the MoMA said: “In regards to the new legislation (S117A), we currently know of no artworks at MoMA that require action. We are carefully reviewing the legislation and will integrate compliance with its provisions into our existing best practices for provenance research management, which include: sharing and publishing research, providing provenance resources and information to the public on our website, keeping our archives open to researchers, and consistently seeking and welcoming any further information on the provenance of all the museum’s collection works.”

New York museums have been at the center of scrutiny and debates for decades about who has rightful ownership of Nazi stolen artworks. 

"More than 600,000 paintings were pilfered from Jewish people during World War II, enriching the Nazi regime while eliminating Jewish culture. For years, many of these paintings have been on display at institutions, yet without any acknowledgment of their origin. This legislation remedies that and allows institutions in New York to honor those whose lives were lost and whose personal possessions were stolen for profit."

Jack Kliger, president and CEO of The Museum of Jewish Heritage

The MoMA launched the Provenance Research Project in 2000 to identify artworks that changed hands under Nazi rule. 

According to the Guggenheim Museum website, its research staff “initially identified approximately 275 works that are known to have, or might reasonably be thought to have, changed hands in continental Europe between 1932 and 1946.”

The Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum have not disclosed how they plan to comply with the new law, and did not respond to the Post’s request for comment. 

IN 2018, the Guggenheim returned a 1915 painting of a group of nude soldiers in a shower to the surviving family members of the German Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, from whom the Nazis took the illustration, the New York Post reported.

The Met has also given back works from Nazi-era Europe over the years, including the 2020 return of a 16th-century silver stem cup to the heirs of a Jewish couple murdered in a concentration camp in 1944.

However, New York museums have also fought to hold on to allegedly stolen pieces. 

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the Met could keep a $100 million Picasso painting in their halls. The family of the previous owner said it was sold to fund the owner’s escape out of Nazi Germany.

Organizations advocating on the ground

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan, which holds restitution ceremonies to celebrate the return of Nazi-stolen artworks to their original owners or family members, applauded the new legislation. A spokesperson added, “The Museum of Jewish Heritage has always acknowledged the origins of any artifacts that they have received.” 

Jack Kliger, the museum’s president and CEO, said in a statement: “More than 600,000 paintings were pilfered from Jewish people during World War II, enriching the Nazi regime while eliminating Jewish culture. For years, many of these paintings have been on display at institutions, yet without any acknowledgment of their origin. This legislation remedies that and allows institutions in New York to honor those whose lives were lost and whose personal possessions were stolen for profit. 

“Over the last two decades, our institution has held restitution ceremonies to commemorate the return of Nazi-stolen paintings and other artifacts to their rightful owners. If we envision a world without hate and discrimination, we must do all that we can to enlighten and educate so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We owe this to the memory of the six million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust.”

Other parts of Hochul’s new package include legislation to improve Holocaust education in schools, and a requirement for the New York State Department of Financial Services to publish a list of financial institutions that waive fees for Holocaust reparation payments.

“As New Yorkers, we are united in our solemn commitment to Holocaust survivors: We will never forget,” Hochul said in a statement. “These are individuals who have endured unspeakable tragedy but nonetheless have persevered to build lives of meaning and purpose right here in New York. We owe it to them, their families, and the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust to honor their memories and ensure future generations understand the horrors of this era.” 

Greg Schneider, executive vice president at the Claims Conference, a nonprofit that helps supply aid and compensation for Holocaust survivors, told the Post that the legislation is “very important.” 

He called the three laws “a good step” toward a much-needed effort to improve New York’s Holocaust education. A survey of Holocaust awareness among millennials and Gen X published by the Claims Conference in 2020 found that New York ranked 41st out of 50 states. The poll also found that the state’s millennials have shockingly low awareness and understanding of the events of Nazi genocide; with 58% unable to name a concentration camp, 19% believing that Jews caused the Holocaust, and 28% believing that the Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated. 

“Far more needs to be done,” Schneider continued. “All three of the new laws put pressure to say Holocaust education is important and this is not the time to relent. It’s even more important now than ever. The museum piece of legislation gives another opportunity to art owners and heirs.” 

Schneider called New York State a leader and expressed hope that more states and countries will follow suit. He added that the artwork law will not only benefit claimants, but all museum-goers and society as a whole. 

“Even if ultimately pieces are not returned to their rightful owners, this is still an important educational opportunity,” Schneider said. “A lot of people go to museums who are not connected to the Holocaust, and certainly not heirs. For them to know that they are looking at a looted piece is important and opens up a new avenue for teaching about the Holocaust. The history is far greater than what you see hanging on the wall.”