New Web site to help identify art looted by the Nazis

A new on-line initiative will soon make previously hard-to-track data about Nazi-era looted art easily available.

art exhibition 88 (photo credit: )
art exhibition 88
(photo credit: )
A new on-line initiative, created by the Swift-Find registry in collaboration with Sotheby's, will soon make previously hard-to-track data about Nazi-era looted art easily available to the general public, thus speeding attempts to reclaim the stolen valuables. On Sunday, the head of Sotheby's Restitution Department, Lucian Simmons, and the historic data consultant for Swift-Find, Shauna Isaac, spoke at the Tel Aviv Museum together with the senior curator of Yad Vashem and with Larry Kate, an American lawyer with expertise in restitution claims. In an interview prior to their talk, at Sotheby's Tel Aviv headquarters, Simmons and Isaac said they hoped the information they provided would help raise awareness of new possibilities for tracking and recovering art looted during World War II. The Swift-Find Looted Art Project (, Isaac said, had been designed to help victims of the Holocaust robbed by the Nazis reclaim stolen valuables. The year-old project offers free access to claimants, enabling them both to search the site's extensive inventory of objects believed to have been looted during World War II, and to list objects they believe had at one time belonged to their families. According to Simmons, Sotheby's has agreed to share the extensive database it has collected since its Restitution Department was founded 10 years ago and make it available on-line for the first time. The database is expected to become accessible through Swift-Find over the next few months. "The department was founded to screen objects and make sure Sotheby's didn't sell looted objects," Simmons said. In the event that an object consigned for sale is revealed by Sotheby's to have been looted by the Nazis, the auction house will help find the heirs and in many cases will facilitate a negotiation process between the consigner and the heirs to the family that lost the property. "We have a pretty unique archive on World War II theft, and we can help them understand what they lost," Simmons said. Oftentimes, even when the heirs no longer have a legal right to the objects, they and the consigners will settle on a way of dividing the profits from a sale of the objects, which may in some cases take place at Sotheby's. "If such a looted object were sold, even legally, the press would scream and nobody would buy it, so it's best for consigners in such cases to bite the bullet and reach a resolution," Simmons said. Simmons said that over the past nine years, Sotheby's had auctioned hundreds of works of art that had been identified as looted and whose heirs had been tracked down. Among the most notable such works, he said, was an 1876 painting by Monet, which sold for 2.7 million, and a Schiele painting that had sold for 12.3m. According to Isaac, even prior to the addition of the Sotheby database to its site, the Swift-Find registry currently contains an inventory of 25,000 looted objects that have yet to be recovered by their legal owners. "Museums can use the site when they know they possess looted art works but don't know their provenance, and want to clear up the title," she said. "And people can use the site to search for objects whose whereabouts are unknown." Swift-Find, Isaac said, was the first Web site that could match data provided with museums by data provided by claimants. Although she said she could not comment at this time about any objects that had been identified and restored, Isaac indicated that some progress had been made to this effect through the site, and that so far it was "very productive." The introduction of an advanced technology in the near future will allow the site to scan photographs provided by claimants and identify the art works in them, in the event that they matched up with looted artworks in the site's database. The technology, Isaac said, could even match up different images of the same artwork taken from different angles - for example, in an old family photograph and in a museum archive. The digitization of the Sotheby's archive, Simmons aid, would make available information about numerous works traded in Nazi-controlled Europe, including catalogues produced by auctioneers supported by the Nazi regime. "The key is that people will now for the first time have widely available access to this information," Simmons said.