March 12, 2011

A Primer on Nazi-Looted Art Provenance: Emily Blyze on the Guidelines Established by Museums

by Emily Blyze, ARCA Alum, Class of 2009

Legal claims by heirs of Holocaust victims whose art works were looted by the Nazis, and claims by foreign “source” countries for objects they believe were exported in violation of patrimony or export laws, have raised awareness of the need for provenance research in regard to due diligence in acquiring works of art. Provenance research has now become the concern of many persons inside and outside the museum profession. This article will discuss the doctrines that have been created and established as common practice to guide museums to the proper handling and protocol for Nazi-looted art. The focus is on the guidelines of Nazi-Era provenance research, specifically addressing the 1998 Washington Principles and the more recent Terezin Declaration, as well as concentrating on the steps museums have taken as a result of the established guidelines. This is the first of a five part series.

In 2009, a Roman newspaper reported that two fingers and a tooth removed from the corpse of Galileo Galilei had been found and would be displayed in an Italian museum.  In 1737, three fingers, a vertebra, and a tooth had been removed from the astronomer’s body 95 years after his death as his corpse was being moved to a monumental tomb opposite that of Michelangelo in Santa Croce Basilica in Florence. One of the fingers recovered is part of the collection of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science (IMSS), in Florence. The vertebra is kept at the University of Padua where Galileo taught -- until the Vatican branded him a heretic for proposing that the Earth revolved around the sun. The tooth and the other two fingers from the scientist's right hand (the thumb and a middle finger) were coveted by an Italian marquis, enclosed in a container, and passed down from generation-to-generation, until it turned up at auction and was purchased by a private collector, intrigued by the contents but not sure they were Galileo’s relics. The relics were inside an 18th-century blown-glass vase within a wooden case topped with a wooden bust of Galileo. The buyer eventually contacted Paoloa Galluzzi, Director of the IMSS, and other Florence culture officials. Using detailed historical documents, as well as documentation from the family who had owned the body parts, they concluded the fingers and tooth had belonged to Galileo.

This story is an example of how the use of detailed documents from the museum and the family helped identify the ownership history of Galileo’s literal travel through time. The technical museum term for ownership history is “provenance.” When associated with a painting or other work of art, provenance means the history of ownership. Tracing the provenance of a painting traditionally has been a responsibility of museum curators. But that has changed in recent years, with the growth of the Internet, the availability of records from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and publicity surrounding high profile cases of Jewish-owned art stolen by Nazi officials. Legal claims by heirs of Holocaust victims whose art works were looted or otherwise misappropriated by the Nazis, and claims by foreign “source” countries for objects they believe were exported in violation of patrimony or export laws, have raised awareness of the need for provenance research in regard to due diligence in acquiring works of art. Provenance research has now become the concern of many persons inside and outside the museum profession.

Doctrines have been created and established as common practice to guide museums in the proper handling and protocol for Nazi-looted art from 1933 to 1945. The museum community has met over recent years to provide guidelines for Nazi-Era provenance research include the 1998 Washington Principles and the more recent Terezin Declaration. Why now? Awareness through articles, books and conferences during the early 1990s focused attention on this topic. The reunification of Germany, collapse of the Soviet Union, and the declassification of archival documents in the United States, together brought about a major resurgence of interest in Nazi looted art. Books such as Lynn H. Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa published in 1994 and Jonathan Petropoulous’s, Art as Politics in the Third Reich (1996) and The Faustian Bargain (2000) left readers with in-depth research of details and unflinching accounts of the art world during World War II.

A conference on January 19-21, 1995, “The Spoils of War – World War II and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property,” organized by the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, provided the first forum on the subject. The conference dealt with the art and other cultural property that was looted, damaged, and destroyed in vast quantities by the Nazi armed forces and confiscation agencies and the consequences that ensued. Approximately 70 speakers and guest participants representing more than 15 countries discussed publicly their concerns about World War II recovery and restitution. The outcome was the 1997 publication of The Spoils of War by Elizabeth Simpson which reproduces the papers presented at the conference. Seventeen key legal documents that are often referred to, but rarely reproduced, have been added as appendices. The appendices contain relevant provisions of all major international treaties, laws, conventions, protocols, and official statements relating to wartime plunder, restitution, and repatriation.

Part two will be posted later today.

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