March 12, 2011

Continued Discussion on Museum Guidelines for the Provenance of Nazi-Looted Art

Edgar Degas' "Landscape with Smokestacks" (Chicago Art Institute)
by Emily Blyze
ARCA Alum 2009

Part Two of Five in a special weekend series
Three major cases in the late 1990s shed light on the need for museums to have guidelines and policies on how to review their collections for Nazi-looted art.

Gutmann vs Searle: In 1995, Daniel Searle, a Board member of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then owner of the monotype pastel by Edgar Degas, Landscape with Smokestacks, received a claim from the family of Friedrich and Louise Gutmann, Dutch art collectors, who had owned the work prior to World War II. The case was settled in 1998. Searle, who purchased the work in good faith from a New York collector in 1987 on the Art Institute’s advice, had displayed the work on several occasions before receiving notice of the claim. Searle ceded a fifty percent (50%) ownership to the Art Institute and the other fifty percent (50%) was given to the Gutmann heirs, Lili Gutmann and her nephews, the Goodmans, who claimed the painting. As part of the settlement, the Art Institute purchased the Gutmanns’ half interest based on the current appraised value of the work.

Rosenberg vs Seattle Art Museum: The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) received a claim in 1997 from the Paul Rosenberg Family for the Henry Matisse painting, Odalisque. The SAM asked the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), a Washington, D.C.-based independent research organization, to conduct a thorough, scholarly and impartial investigation of the painting's provenance. Upon the HARP findings, the SAM returned the painting to the Rosenberg heirs.

The Leopold Schiele case: The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York received claims in 1997 for two paintings, Dead City III and Portrait of Wally, by Egon Schiele on loan from the Leopold Museum in Austria. The U.S. government confiscated the paintings under the National Stolen Property Act when it was on loan from the Leopold, claiming that the museum knew the Nazis had stolen the painting in 1939 from its Jewish owner, Lea Bondi. Dead City III was returned to the Leopold Museum because its former owner had no heirs. The Portrait of Wally case was settled in July 2010: the Leopold Museum paid $19 million to the estate of pre-war owner.

The American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) established the Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II era (1933-1945) on June 4, 1998. The Task Force recommended that museums review the provenance of their collections. The report's topics include a section entitled Statement of Principles, a section on Guidelines with subcategories that addressed Research Regarding Existing Collections, Future Gifts, Bequests, and Purchases, Access to Museum Records, Discovery of Unlawfully works of Art, Response to Claims Against the Museum, Incoming Loans, and a section with Database Recommendations. An Addendum was released April 30, 2001.

In 1998, the U.S. Federal Government held a series of congressional hearings, forming a Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the U.S. (PCHA) and hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. In connection with the conference, the “Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art” was released on December 3, 1998. Forty-four governments participated in developing a consensus of the 11 non-binding principles to assist in resolving Nazi-confiscated art issues.

The American Association of Museums (AAM) drafted their guidelines, Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi Era, issued in 1999. In 2001, the AAM and AAMD, along with the PCHA, issued their reports defining the standards for disclosure of information and the creation of a searchable central registry of museum object information, as detailed in the AAM Recommended Procedures for Providing Information to the Public about Objects Transferred in Europe during the Nazi Era, adopted in May 2001.

On June 30, 2009, the European Union held a Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague and established the Terezin Declaration. The 46 participating nations endorsed the Terezin Declaration that strengthened and reaffirmed the Washington Principles and reinforced the need for continued provenance research. The Terezin Declaration maintains the non-binding nature of the Washington Principles, but also promotes an urgent need to strengthen and sustain the efforts of the principles. The sense of urgency is noted, but why the need for the Terezin Declaration? What can be accomplished with the Terezin Declaration that could not with the Washington Principles? A letter from the Ambassador Miloš Pojar, Chairman of the Organizing Committee states, “It is our moral and political responsibility to support the Holocaust remembrance and education in national, as well as international, frameworks and to fight against all forms of intolerance and hatred.”

The Terezin Declaration conveys a sense of urgency that was much less noticeable within the Washington Principles. Due to the advanced age of those persecuted, the education, remembrance, and the social welfare needs of Holocaust (Shoah) survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution require a time of reflection on the need for tribute. The Terezin Declaration addresses the need to review current practices regarding provenance research and restitution and, where needed, to define new effective instruments to improve these efforts. The term “instrument” can be interpreted several different ways, including her, a working body constructed to carry out the mission of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference.

Part three will be posted tomorrow.