Outside the frame of justice

Where Nazi-looted art is concerned, justice remains nearly as elusive for Nazi victims and their heirs as ever.

Klimt 88 (photo credit: )
Klimt 88
(photo credit: )
After a six-year hiatus, the US Congress recently rediscovered the question of Nazi-looted art. In hearings last week, it became clear that justice remains nearly as elusive for Nazi victims and their heirs as it was when Congress took a more aggressive role between 1997 and 2000. True, there have been some blockbuster successes - notably the return by Austria of five major Gustav Klimt paintings to the heirs of the Viennese magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. By most measures, however, little progress has been made in identifying and returning looted artworks to the original owners or heirs. The hearing in Washington, convened by a panel of the House Financial Services Committee, was intended to gauge how American museums have advanced in identifying and returning Nazi-looted artworks. These museums made a commitment in 1998 - subsequently reaffirmed - to research their collections for objects that had changed hands in Europe between 1933 and 1945. IT IS known that scores of thousands of Jewish cultural properties survived the Nazis' program of the massive destruction of Jewish life and culture. There was a thriving art market in Europe for part of World War II, and an untold number of these plundered works have found their way into public and private collections around the world. Locating the works requires Holocaust survivors and heirs to identify what was lost; museums, auction houses and art dealers have to identify the objects in their custody. Because artworks are mobile assets and Jewish families were dispersed after the war, there are no consistent or logical connections between the current location of the works or the prewar owners. Since grand commitments made in the late 1990s - particularly during the US State Department's international forum, the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998 - victims and their heirs find more sensitivity to the issue. But they find relatively little in the way of meaningful practical help. It was not until 2003 that American museums established a searchable registry of war-era objects in their collections. However, the registry, known as the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (www.nepip.org), is only as good as the information provided by the museums. It lists some 18,000 objects that possibly changed ownership in Europe during the Nazi era. These require serious provenance research to firmly establish their origins. NEARLY EIGHT years after the Washington Conference, not all American museums are conducting research. Of those that are, 52 percent have completed research on less than half of the relevant items in their collections and another 33 percent did not indicate how much work they had completed, according to a survey released by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany on the eve of the hearing. Most museums declined to indicate how much of their budgets were devoted to the project. The anecdotal evidence is that most museums undertake research only when a claim is made. Some six decades after the Holocaust, some artworks appear on the market, consigned by private individuals. The major auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's, have inhouse researchers to determine the prewar ownership of objects. However, art dealers and smaller auction houses tend to rely on the Art Loss Register to learn if items have been reported missing. Owners, insurers and law enforcement agencies report stolen and missing items to the register, which was created in 1991 by the art trade and insurers. For lack of an alternative, it also has become the de-facto central database for reporting Nazi-era losses. For the claimants, the Art Loss Register is a mixed blessing. It is a mechanism for informing the art trade of claims for certain objects. However, in the event of a recovery of a Nazi-era item, the Art Loss Register charges a recovery fee of up to 15 percent of the value of the object. IN HIS testimony at the congressional hearing, Edward H. Able Jr., the president of the American Association of Museums, encouraged Congress to consider additional grants for museums' research. Provenance research requires substantial resources because each object's history is unique and can require months of research in archives in multiple countries. But it is not clear why this should be a government expense. It is in museums' interests to prove they are not safe havens for stolen art. Museums (and their donors) already benefit from a wide variety of public subsidies. And if, for instance, the Neue Galerie in New York can afford to pay $135 million for one of the Bloch-Bauer Klimts, how can major museums plead poverty for research? Able told the congressional panel that one museum spent $20,000, plus travel and expenses, over the course of two years for research to resolve the history of three paintings. Yet few seem concerned with the mirror image of that statement: of obliging the victims to pay to locate and recover what was stolen from them. FOR HOLOCAUST survivors and their heirs, justice remains as expensive and elusive as it was when Congress first took interest in the issue. Those who seek their families' artworks are likely to learn they will get as much "justice" as they can afford to buy. The writer is the author of Confronting the Perpetrators: The Jewish Claims Conference, coming out this fall.