The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures
The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Provenance Research Ramps Up Among Major Institutions
In recent years, major art museums and institutions in New York and beyond have significantly stepped up efforts to trace the provenance (or ownership history) of artworks in their collections that may have been looted by the Nazis during World War II. This marks a shift from decades past when many museums lacked the resources or initiative to thoroughly research the origins of some contested works.
With increased calls for restitution of Nazi-seized art, institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and others have dedicated staff and undertaken major projects to unravel the complex histories of art in their collections with questionable or murky provenance from the WWII era and Holocaust.
The Met in particular has emerged as a leader in provenance research through its Provenance Research Project, launched in 2000. The museum now employs full-time provenance researchers who systematically comb through the Met's encyclopedic holdings for clues about art that may have been looted by the Nazis and never restituted to rightful owners. This painstaking work involves excavating old sale and exhibition catalogs, auction records, gallery stock books, and archives around the world.
In recent years, the Met and other New York institutions have identified numerous works in their collections that have problematic WWII-era provenance and possibly belonged to Jewish collectors whose art was confiscated. However, museums are often hindered in resolving these cases due to scant documentation and the deaths of owners who could have claimed the art decades ago.
While provenance research has expanded significantly, museums know there is more work to be done. The Association of Art Museum Directors has put forward guidelines for member institutions to follow best practices in researching collection works that changed hands in Nazi-occupied Europe. Adopting these guidelines signals a commitment by museums like the Met, MoMA, and the Guggenheim to apply greater rigor in tracing provenance and making findings public.
What else is in this post?
- The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Provenance Research Ramps Up Among Major Institutions
- The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Calls Grow to Return Seized Objects to Rightful Owners
- The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Legal Complexities Abound in Determining True Ownership
- The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Museums Grapple with Murky Histories of Some Collection Pieces
- The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Efforts Underway to Create Central Database on Looted Artifacts
- The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Some Museums Reluctant to Give Up Prized Possessions
- The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Jewish Groups Lead Push for Greater Transparency and Reform
- The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Future of Contested Artworks Remains Uncertain
The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Calls Grow to Return Seized Objects to Rightful Owners
As awareness grows regarding artworks in museum collections with questionable Nazi-era provenance, calls have intensified for major institutions to return pieces to heirs and descendants of original Jewish owners. Advocacy groups like the World Jewish Restitution Organization have urged museums not just to research provenance, but to take the extra step of restituting art to rightful owners when identified.
Government officials have also weighed in. In late 2022, over 60 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter asking the Met, MoMA, Guggenheim, National Gallery of Art and others to expedite research on Nazi-looted art and “make restitution an urgent priority.” The letter stated these institutions have an ethical imperative to rectify past injustices suffered by Holocaust victims who were stripped of beloved art collections.
Some museums have heeded this call, as evidenced by the Met recently restoring a 16th century painting to the heirs of a renowned Jewish art collector who fled Germany in the 1930s. However, other institutions have been reluctant to part with collection works, even in cases with solid documentation showing seizure from Jewish owners under the Nazis.
The Toledo Museum of Art has refused calls to return a 17th century Dutch painting that the Commission for Looted Art in Europe found belonged to Jewish-German art historian Max Friedländer before Nazis confiscated it. While the museum acknowledged the painting's problematic provenance, its director stated "the work belongs at the Toledo Museum of Art."
In another case, despite evidence a Picasso hanging in the Guggenheim was sold under duress by Jewish owners fleeing Fascist Italy in 1938, the museum maintains it sees "no clear and compelling case" for its restitution.
These examples highlight the complex debate around returning disputed artworks. On one hand, museums argue they have invested resources in researching, caring for and exhibiting these pieces for generations and are reluctant to give them up. However, advocates counter it is unethical for institutions to cling to artworks when there is clear evidence of Nazi theft and surviving heirs have come forward.
Some compromise solutions have emerged, including “permanent loans” that keep disputed art in museums while officially transferring ownership. However, many claim heirs deserve full restitution and such compromises allow museums to avoid truly reckoning with artworks' problematic histories.
The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Legal Complexities Abound in Determining True Ownership
Determining the true ownership of artworks with questionable Nazi-era provenance involves navigating complex legal issues. When Jewish collectors and galleries lost possession of artworks during the Nazi reign of terror, the losses were often poorly documented or obscured by coerced sales and sham transactions. Unraveling the paper trails around these art transfers requires extensive research and a nuanced understanding of restitution law.
Several key factors complicate legal claims around Nazi-looted art. In some cases, the original owners of disputed works were killed in the Holocaust and have no known heirs, leaving ownership ambiguous. Even when heirs do exist, gaps in documentation can make it difficult to definitively prove an item was illegally seized rather than legitimately purchased decades ago.
The passage of time also creates problems. In countries like Germany and Austria, restitution laws impose 30-year statutes of limitations that generally expired in the 1970s. Many organizations like the Claims Conference have lobbied to eliminate these time limits on claims so that the scale of Nazi cultural theft can still be addressed today. But statutes of limitations remain a barrier in some jurisdictions.
Another issue is the distinction between involuntary loss due to persecution versus duress sales where Jewish sellers had no choice but to accept woefully inadequate prices from Nazi-affiliated dealers or directly to the regime. While both amount to displacement, the legal nuances around ownership and restitution claims differ between outright seizure versus coerced sales.
Some nations have attempted to address the complexities around Nazi-looted art through commissions, restitution laws and alternative dispute resolution forums. Germany established the Advisory Commission for the Return of Cultural Property Seized as a Result of Nazi Persecution to mediate claims. Austria's Art Restitution Law created a process for arbitrating ownership disputes. And the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art laid out international guidelines on restitution.
The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Museums Grapple with Murky Histories of Some Collection Pieces
Uncovering the complete provenance of artworks is a monumental challenge, even for museums with vast resources like the Met. For some contested pieces in collections, the gaps in ownership records create ambiguities that leave museums on precarious ethical ground.
A prime example is the Met’s painting Portrait of Wally by Austrian artist Egon Schiele. Seized in 1939 from Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray as she fled Vienna, the Schiele work swapped several owners before being donated to the Met in 1954. For decades, the painting’s Nazi-looted origins were obscured. Only when Bondi's heirs brought a claim did the Met finally relinquish the work in 2010 after a long legal battle.
Other Schiele works now face similar scrutiny at the Met, such as Dead City III. While the Met's own provenance research raised questions about a possible Nazi-tainted past, the gaps in documentation make it impossible to know for certain. Lacking a conclusive smoking gun, the Dead City III remains in the museum's collection despite protests.
The Met also holds many antiquities with hazy histories before arriving at the museum, including ancient pottery and marble works that may have been illegally looted or excavated. While the 1970 UNESCO Convention aimed to curb plundering of cultural sites, artifacts that entered collections earlier pose dilemmas. Even with today's stricter acquisition policies, determining how to address relics from centuries past with questionable origins is an ethical minefield.
Other renowned paintings at the Met face ownership challenges beyond Holocaust-era looting. A 15th century illuminated manuscript page was loaned by collector David Koetser, who later claimed the Met refused to return it. Koetser's disputed ownership claims created a cloud over the work's status. Even masterpieces bequeathed or donated "in good faith" can turn out to have suspect histories hidden beneath the surface.
Murky provenance extends beyond the Met. MoMA was taken to court by the heirs of German-Jewish banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy seeking the restitution of two Picasso paintings seized after Mendelssohn-Bartholdy fled the Nazis. Both works had convoluted trails covering their tracks.
The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Efforts Underway to Create Central Database on Looted Artifacts
Amid the complex task of researching Nazi-looted art in museum collections, a groundbreaking effort is underway to compile a comprehensive digital database of works stolen by the Nazis so that their histories can be traced.
The German Lost Art Foundation has spearheaded development of the German Lost Art Database, an online portal documenting over 20,000 artworks confiscated or misplaced due mostly to Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 40s. This publicly searchable catalog draws on years of archival research in Germany and across Europe to consolidate information on displaced cultural objects in one centralized place.
A key aim of the database is to assist heirs and institutions in identifying art lost or stolen during the Nazi era by creating a way to cross-reference between confiscated works and those that resurfaced after the war. Families can search for clues about the fate of precious paintings, sculptures or Judaica collections seized from their ancestors. Museums can check whether artworks donated decades ago were actually stolen from murdered Jewish owners who never reclaimed them after the Holocaust.
By aggregating vital provenance data that was previously scattered across disconnected archives and records, the German Lost Art Database brings order to a process that once required painstaking detective work. Users worldwide can search inventories, sale logs, claims and other documents pointing to the seizure of artworks under Nazi persecution.
Inclusion in the database does not equate to certainty that a work was looted or determine legal ownership. But it provides a roadmap to aid further research and future claims. Users can request correction of inaccurate information to improve the repository's reliability.
The Foundation'sDatabase dovetails with other current cataloging projects, including the Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative documenting the fate of works in its collections and the Getty Provenance Index tracking European art sales and collections between the 16th and 20th centuries.
The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Some Museums Reluctant to Give Up Prized Possessions
While many museums have made strides in researching Nazi-looted artworks in their collections, some institutions remain reluctant to relinquish prized pieces even when evidence clearly points to their seizure from Jewish owners during the Holocaust era. This reluctance stems from a complex mix of financial motivations, institutional ego, and aversion to acknowledging dark chapters of acquisition histories.
For elite museums like the Met and MoMA, giving up masterpieces means losing both tremendously valuable assets and star attractions that draw crowds. Egon Schiele's Portrait of Wally became a point of pride for the Met after its donation in the 1950s. Only when confronted with irrefutable proof of its theft from Vienna collector Lea Bondi did the Met grudgingly return the painting to Bondi's heirs, following nearly a decade of costly legal battles.
The emotional difficulty of removing Collection works extends beyond dollars and cents. As one former Met director bluntly stated, "We are in the business of preserving and maintaining the world's great art for posterity. We don't want to give up art." This sense of institutional mission and loyalty keeps disputed pieces in museum galleries based on principle, even when their problematic histories come to light.
Museums also voice concern that restituting artworks sets a "dangerous precedent" that could empty Collections. If one Schiele portrait begets other claims, soon dozens more could depart. Yet advocates argue downplaying Holocaust injustices to protect collections is unprincipled. Each case should be weighed carefully based on its unique merits rather than automatically refused out of blanket self-interest.
Apart from financial and philosophical rationales, sheer inertia is a barrier. Confronting misdeeds of past museum leaders who acquired stolen goods or obscured artworks' origins implicates current institutions. Facing history's shadows forces museums to question heroic narratives of growth through donations and purchases of geniuses like Picasso.
Yet clinging to looted works ultimately taints museum reputations more than restitution. As James Snyder, former director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem stated, "No work in your collection should carry a curse along with it. There are some archeologists who say ‘over my dead body’ will this object be returned. But I say it is better to return an object than have your institution forever cursed."
Slowly, the balance appears to be tipping from intransigence toward proaction as heirs speak out and politicians apply pressure. The Met has returned disputed antiquities to Lebanon and Cambodia that were likely pillaged from archeological sites. As museums develop clear guidelines for evaluating ownership claims, more fact-based determinations can displace fear that any restitution opens the floodgates.
Through continued archival dives and cross-institutional collaboration, the haze around confiscated artworks can clear. Pieces rescued or legally sold might remain with museums, while likely loot could transfer to heirs. Additional options like joint custody and long-term loans also put rightful owners' interests first while keeping works public.
The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Jewish Groups Lead Push for Greater Transparency and Reform
Jewish advocacy organizations have been at the forefront of pushing museums and governments for greater transparency and reform surrounding Nazi-looted art. Groups like the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany have applied persistent pressure on institutions to thoroughly research collection works with questionable provenance from the World War II period.
These Jewish groups argue that museums have an ethical obligation not just to conduct provenance research, but to proactively identify heirs of stolen artworks and restitute these cultural objects back to the victims and families of those persecuted. In their view, provenance research is merely a first step. The critical next phase is to actually return looted works rather than just let them remain in museum collections with an asterisk about their dubious pasts.
WJRO Vice President Wesley Fisher has been blunt in asserting that museums should no longer be able to "bury or whitewash the Nazi loot in their collections" by keeping works they know were brazenly stolen decades ago. His organization has helped craft national policies and legislation around Nazi-confiscated art, including the U.S. HEAR Act which requires museums to disclose inventories online and substantively research Works with gaps from 1933-1945.
Other groups like the World Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities in 100 countries, have used their global influence to persuade governments to intervene more forcefully. In 2018, the WJC successfully convinced Germany to implement new laws making it easier for families to reclaim stolen artworks found in public museums and galleries across the country. This represented a major shift of favoring heirs over institutions.
Ronald Lauder, an American philanthropist and president of the WJC, has criticized countries like Germany and Spain for not going far enough in renationalizing Nazi-plundered treasures that wound up in their museum collections after the war. He has called this an ongoing injustice against Holocaust victims and their descendants.
These Jewish organizations have also targeted major U.S. museums for clinging to disputed Works despite clear evidence they were confiscated from Jewish families by Nazis or forced to sell them under duress to raise funds to flee. Groups like the WJRO and Claims Conference have assisted heirs seeking restitution through negotiations, mediation and even lawsuits when museums like the Met have stubbornly refused to hand over stolen pieces.
While some museums have shifted their stance and embraced restitution of Nazi-looted art, the advocacy by Jewish groups has been crucial in spurring this cultural change. Their unified voice and moral authority on Holocaust reparations issues give weight to the demand that museums atone for profiting off suffering by transparently tracing provenance and returning stolen works to rightful heirs when found.
The Art of Atonement: New York Museums Grapple with Nazi-Looted Treasures - Future of Contested Artworks Remains Uncertain
The fates of countless artworks displaced during the Nazi era remain unresolved today. Despite expanded provenance research and calls for repatriation, myriad legal, ethical and practical complexities continue clouding the futures of so many contested pieces scattered across museums and private holdings worldwide.
The realities of aging heirs and survivors combined with jurisdictions imposing statutes of limitations on claims create ticking clocks on achieving justice for families stripped of cherished art. As advocates have observed, every month that passes represents lost opportunity as more heirs able to vividly recall the tangible meaning behind stolen paintings, sculptures and relics pass away. Even when descendants persist in fighting for restitution, they inherit only fragments and photographs of memories from elders. The direct connections are frayed as thedistance from wartime trauma grows.
Practical barriers also loom around contested objects with multiple potential heirs or heirs who cannot afford lengthy legal disputes with wealthy institutions. Museums bank on claimants backing down when faced with astronomical lawyer fees or uncooperative governments uninterested in compelling restitution. The scales remain tipped in favor of powerful institutions despite pressure from Jewish organizations and politicians.
Ambiguities surrounding forced sales at deflated prices versus outright confiscation allow museums to claim works were willingly transferred based on documents lacking context of Nazi coercion and misdeeds. With scant paperwork and fading memories, substantiating duress becomes nearly impossible for desperate families who took whatever crumbs were offered when fleeing persecution. Their exploitation falls through the legal cracks.
Even with political will, some countries dependent on tourism have little desire to strip national museums and force restitution. Despite heirs armed with convincing evidence, governments ignore recommendations from commissions and advisors. Staggering numbers of artworks remain hostage to entanglements between museums protecting reputations and governments protecting national interests.
Meanwhile, many private collectors evade scrutiny and transparency. Houses brim with paintings quietly handed down through generations that originally came from pillaged Jewish homes and galleries under Nazi oppression. Provenance research and restitution claims focus largely on major institutions' collections rather than systematically accounting for displacement across private wealth around the world.