September 15, 2014

The European Shoah Legacy Institute and its Mission to Recover Looted Art

By Halyna Senyk, Executive Director

The Holocaust-Era Assets Conference of June 2009 in Prague and the resulting Terezin Declaration endorsed by forty-seven countries reaffirmed the crying need for addressing issues surround the restitution and compensation of looted art. Beginning in the 1930’s, the Nazi regime was responsible for the confiscation, theft, and sale of hundreds of thousands – and potentially millions - of objects of art and other items of cultural property from public and private collections throughout the occupied territories of Europe. The scale and scope of such systematic looting was unprecedented in history. Many of these items were either stolen or otherwise obtained through duress from the private collections of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. A significant number of important objects were also looted from public and private museum collections.

Some of the stolen works eventually entered the personal collections of high-ranking Nazi officials; many others were destined for Hitler’s unrealised F├╝hrermuseum complex in Linz; countless more were simply sold for hard currency to be used to support the Nazi war effort. Although Allied policy after the war called for the return of these stolen artworks, an untold number were not returned and instead remained in governments collections. Many were resold or otherwise dispersed; others still have never been found.

Legal claims by the heirs and descendants of Holocaust victims whose art and other cultural objects were looted by the Nazis, along with analogous claims by foreign ‘source’ countries for objects similarly misappropriated, have significantly contributed to the importance of provenance research as it relates to the due diligence and legality involved in acquiring artworks that are known or suspected of having originated out of Nazi Germany or occupied Europe. 

Provenance research has long been a pivotal facet of the private art market with auction houses, major galleries, and private collectors all recognising the need for accurate and reliable provenance on artworks and other cultural objects offered for sale. This is almost exclusively due to the fact that complete and precise provenance is necessary for establishing the authenticity of a piece available for sale, which in turn influences valuation for both vending and insurance purposes. Little regard or interest is paid to the question of whether the current possessor of a piece has the right to pass title in said piece to a third party purchaser. This small but potentially damaging oversight – given the international nature of the private art market – can result in significant financial, legal, and reputational damage to both the inculpable seller and the good faith purchaser. As a multi-billion dollar industry, the art market can no longer afford to neglect its onerous duty to be ethical, accountable, and transparent when it comes to analysing the full and complete provenance of individual objects offered for private sale.

The European Shoah LegacyInstitute (ESLI) strives to actualise the objectives of the Terezin Declaration through a variety of activities (including training workshops, international conferences, and research) relating to looted art, Judaica, and other cultural property illegally misappropriated during the Second World War. To ensure that appropriate international regard is paid to the importance of the ongoing development of provenance, ESLI has been engaged in the following activities:
·      Organizing training programs in Europe and the Americas that develop and refine critical research and analytical skills in the emerging discipline of provenance research (the documentation of the ownership history of an art object from creation to the present day);
·    Organizing national conferences in cooperation with relevant Ministries of Culture on restitution of cultural property and provenance research at the national level;
·    Facilitating the creation of an independent, international association of provenance researchers and allied professionals; and
·      Promoting provenance research as a mandatory component of collection management practices across all forty-seven Terezin Declaration countries.
The Provenance Research TrainingProgram (PRTP) – created by ESLI in 2011 with the support of the Jewish Claims Conference – aims to empower professionals working within provenance research and its related fields to connect and cooperate in the proliferation of relevant skills and knowledge; the development of professional standards and an industry code of conduct; and the furtherance of provenance as an independent, respected, and self-regulating professional industry. Each year the program offers several week-long workshops taught by internationally renowned specialists with expertise in provenance research and related fields, structured around the complementary themes of research, history, and ethics. In addition to facilitating research and providing access to a vast array of information, the program will promote the establishment of international networks of provenance researchers that will bring together experts in all relevant fields and countries.

Through post-workshop analysis and reviews, ESLI discovered that a regrettable lack of appropriate funding for provenance research across state museums, private galleries, and other institutions has resulted in significant difficulties for PRTP alumni in adequately applying their new skills productively and effectively.  For this reason, ESLI intends to address the European Parliament Committee on Culture and Education – along with relevant federal Ministries of Culture – to advocate for the increased availability of funding and the establishment of provenance research as a mandatory aspect of collection management practices at the national level. Furthermore, ESLI is planning to work with legislators to raise awareness about the importance of provenance and the necessity of supporting provenance research across both existing and potential future collections.

Through the PRTP, ESLI is hoping to address the concern that provenance research, as an emerging industry, is a highly unregulated and improvised field with minimal regulatory oversight and no established code of conduct or professional standards. Institutions working within this field operate independently and without inter-organisational coordination resulting in a significant duplication of work, whilst the lack of structured and established professional standards frequently results in the production of work to inconsistent levels of quality and detail. Such extensive incongruence amongst so many professionals within a single field severely hampers any real advancement towards the development of a unified community of experts and the establishment of a recognised and respected professional industry.

These projects are vital to facilitating the continued advancement of full and complete provenance research as an obligatory benchmark of professional progress for museums, auction houses, and private galleries. ESLI is an important facilitator of the establishment of an international, independent professional association capable of creating a framework for self-regulation that will enhance development in this field. As inaccurate provenance may potentially result in a transmutation of title, impartiality and independence are absolutely vital in securing confidence and respectability.

ESLI believes this will be achieved by providing professional staff from these institutions - through the Provenance Research Training Program - with the knowledge and skills necessary to understand the importance and techniques of provenance research, whilst simultaneously encouraging the development of a professional body of provenance researchers by facilitating dialogue and networking amongst professionals working in this field.

Last but not least, ESLI has been monitoring adherence to the principles espoused in the Terezin Declaration by creating a database on relevant legislation and its implementation across all five fields covered by the Declaration in the forty-seven member countries. It is our intention to cooperate with analogous organizations similarly engaged in the collection and collation of pertinent data to ensure a constant stream of up-to-date information.

The European Shoah Legacy Institute believes in synergy, cooperation, mutual understanding, and consensus. Our organization was founded on the consensus of forty-seven governments and will continue cooperating with governments, as well as national and intergovernmental organizations on promoting provenance.

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