September 18, 2014

Halyna Senyk, Executive Director of the European Shoah Legacy Institute, Speaks on the Importance of Archives in Provenance Research

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

International human rights lawyer Halyna Senyk has joined the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), an organization based in Prague, which is aiming to make provenance research mandatory in the art market, especially in areas where looting of art was combined with genocidal acts. We spoke briefly last week via Skype about the mission of ESLI.

“Washington principles and the Terezin Declaration “opened the door” for provenance research to become the main catalyst  in restoring justice of the Nazi looting of culture objects," Ms. Senyk explained. "The majority of the European legal systems recognize the bona fide acquirer as a rightful owner, even if s/he bought a stolen art object, besides many countries in Europe has statutory limitations which prevent to claim the property, which was stolen more than 70 years ago.  Only provenance research can challenge the title of a bona fide acquirer and can re-open cases, which have been closed due to the statutory limitation.  When we talk about provenance at large, we’re not just talking about Nazi crimes.

I’ve worked in human rights all my life and I believe in justice – what is important is that people who went through the Holocaust that they see justice – whether it involves issues of stolen property or art and that these items are returned. It doesn’t always mean that items are taken from museums but that title is corrected. This is what we are aiming at. The legislation doesn’t always reflect the historical reality. Who was the bona fide buyer? As we study art history, we should also study the provenance of the cultural object. It’s important to know the history of the object and who was the owner and taken into consideration that only a small percentage of what was looted has been returned. We have only four countries that have made major progress towards implementing the Washington principles and the Terezin Declaration. Part of our main mission is to monitor adherence to the Terezin Declaration, conceptualize the best practices and to assist governments in developing their national policies to bring them in compliance with their obligations. Austria, for instance, is the only country that has mandatory provenance for all state museums."

What are the country models of funding provenance research at an effective level?

Ms. Senyk: “The states have funded provenance research in Germany, and Austria. The Netherlands and Czech Republic have mitigating bodies to resolve disputes over art property injustices inflicted on Holocaust victim and they have been using provenance research as an important tool in resolving them. Some private museums, like the Jewish Museum in Prague, initiated the provenance research of its collection on its own expense.”

How can you develop standards and work with others in the field?

Ms. Senyk: “Provenance research is dictated by restitution disputes either by a museum or a family. What is important for us is that provenance research is independent and impartial and not influenced by one party or the other – when is it done, we’re looking for a report based upon as much information as is fiscally responsible. Sometimes we don’t have access to archives. Researchers try to do everything possible to show that they have done their due diligence. Until now the standards of provenance research reports haven’t been discussed.

“We also discovered that discussing accessibility of archives, how getting information is extremely difficult. Talking about provenance without talking about archives doesn’t make sense because researchers have to be able to look at information in all available sources. We talk a lot about national archives and how to use their archives, how to submit requests and get the information. In these workshops, we list the archives and share the practical experience of the researchers. We believe that sources of information is very important. It is also helpful to have researchers who understand the history and the movement of the cultural property at the time it was stolen.”

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