March 14, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011 - No comments

Museums and Nazi-looted Art: Provenance research departments and registeries

by Emily Blyze, ARCA Alum 2009
The last post of a five-part weekend series

In September 2009, the Indianapolis Museum of Art built an Object Registry for the AAMD devoted to the Resolution of Claims for Nazi-Era Cultural Assets. This registry provides information on the resolution of formal claims made to AAMD member museums regarding works of art stolen by the Nazis between 1933-1945. It lists objects restituted and settlements made since June 4, 1998, the date the Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era (1933-1945) was adopted. The registry encourages openness regarding works nationally and internationally, a source for information on resolved claims for AAMD member museums, as well as supplement information provided by the AAM.

Guidelines and Procedures for World War II Provenance Issues created in September 2009 by The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is a 136-page document that breaks down the mechanics of how to conduct provenance research. The Freer/Sackler guidelines and procedures address their protocol on handling works, but also offer an ample resource for museums needing assistance. How to conduct provenance research was mentioned before in this paper. The AAM Guide to Provenance Research does achieve this goal and provides a sample for recording provenance, as well as specific case studies of how detail oriented a provenance researcher’s job is. However, the Freer/Sackler expands on the process of how to handle acquisition policies, loan agreements, suggested procedures and questionnaires for donors, vendors, curators who help in acquiring research information. A provenance research checklist and a provenance display procedure and guidelines section is available to reference as well.

With regard to making effective and economical steps towards correctly addressing their collection with proper provenance research, some museums have established provenance research websites. In accordance with the AAMD and AAM guidelines, institutions such as The Getty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago have a designated space on their website addressing provenance research. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art stated that through a significant gift from the Chase family of Connecticut, the Atheneum was able to conduct an in-depth provenance research project on its museum’s collection of approximately 50,000 objects of art. Their findings are posted on their website, stating if a work has clear or questionable provenance.

Museums have made strides towards compliance with the AAMD and AAM guidelines. But there is always room for strategic and effective growth. A recommendation for the future is to create a Nazi-Era Provenance Researchers Association (NEPRA). Alongside the WG Looted Art recommendation 7, the aim would be to establish an association where provenance researchers have a peer group not only to help each other, but develop the profession as well. NEPRA would need to be initiated by the Terezin Declaration, under the arm of the Terezin Institute. The Terezin Institute would be the umbrella for operation, but the association would maintain its own entity. That way it would have the support of the Terezin Declaration goals and objectives, but be able and nimble enough to create its own mission statement, purpose and bylaws. As with other associations, a Board of Governors or Council would need to be identified. From there, the founding principles would be drawn up by the Council. Nazi-era provenance researchers are a small, but powerful group of individuals. The goals of the association would be to educate and spread awareness with a concrete set of identified persons in the field; adhere to unified standards that will bring cohesiveness to the profession; bring together these individuals to disseminate information and resources; create a database of all affiliated personnel and institutions – a central location will help to alleviate time of contacting those in the field and promote more time towards research of the artwork.

All individuals and establishments involved with provenance research would be encouraged to join, adhering to the non-binding regulations of the Terezin Declaration. An act of “requirement” of participation would not be feasible. It is only when the Terezin Declaration becomes binding that the guidelines and recommendations falling under it will be followed. Establishments such as auction houses should be encouraged to join.

Auction houses, such as Sotheby’s, have established Nazi-era provenance research departments. Since 1997, Sotheby’s has run a due diligence program targeted at identifying possible WWII provenance issues amongst the artworks brought to them to value or sell. The program maintains a specialized international team of provenance researchers within Sotheby’s whose role is to support Sotheby’s specialists throughout the world in dealing with provenance research and spoliation issues. The team is staffed with art historians and lawyers in New York and London and calls on the services of a network of independent art historians based in Europe and North America. If auction houses join then there will be an economic and commercial incentive for doing so. By completing provenance research, it obviates the possibility of the auction house being litigated against for selling Nazi-era work. Their research will also often lead to the discovery of works that end up coming under the hammer as part of a settlement. Museums would be persuaded to join the association where they are forced to complete provenance research anyways for moral reasons.

As many as 70,000 artworks remain scattered in museums and private collections or simply lost around the world. There is a feeling that the process has stalled in some countries, thanks to a combination of political will and sheer ignorance of the provenance of artwork. In tackling the problem of Nazi-era looted works of art in public collections, provenance research has now shifted to the forefront of concern to many persons inside and outside the museum profession.

The very need to establish the Terezin project in addition to, and so soon after, the Washington Principles demonstrates that the issue is still an urgent and important one in international museum culture and is expected to remain so for the foreseeable future.

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