‘Looted Art for Sale’ symposium explores hidden history of paintings

‘Looted Art for Sale’ symposium explores hidden history of paintings

November 8, 2018

“To strip Jews of their culture, it’s part and parcel with the Holocaust,” said former U.S. Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, responding to a question about the legacy of art stolen from Jews by Nazis during the second World War. This was after Eizenstat delivered the keynote address in the “Looted Art for Sale” symposium last Tuesday, where he spoke about his personal impact in restituting stolen artworks and evaluated what further needed to be done to institute justice for those wronged by the Nazi regime.

Ambassador Eizenstat was instrumental in drawing up and passing the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, non-binding “moral principles” that was signed by over forty-six countries, including Austria, Germany, France, The Netherlands and the United States.

The largest effect of the Washington Principles was a new emphasis on the determining the exact provenance of a work of art. Proper provenance (from the French verb provenir, “to come from”) requires painstakingly researching the details on an art sale—how and why a particular painting was bought and sold. Ascertaining the provenance of pieces between the years of 1933 and 1945 is particularly important: any discrepancies from the era in which Hitler came to power could signal the work was stolen by the Nazi regime.

Throughout the six-hour event, seven other speakers elaborated on these effects: how the need for restitution in the art world has shaped legal, curatorial and academic pursuits.

The first panel of speakers discussed a more academic approach to the topic of stolen art. Kim Oosterlinck, Professor of Finance at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, detailed an analysis of art value in France, The Netherlands and Belgium. It was obvious from the data that during the second World War in Europe, art became a way to protect one’s assets against inflation. Oosterlinck demonstrated with a graph how buyers favored smaller paintings to larger ones—“alternate assets” being much easier to physically move—and compellingly argued the important art was as a financial tool during World War II.

Lynn Rother, Senior Provenance Specialist at the Museum of Modern Art, continued on this theme, detailing how, through careful research of bank documents, she was able to track the history of a “Over Vitebsk” by Marc Chagall. “Bank files tell me more about the art markets than any other source,” she said. Chagall—who had Jewish heritage—was unclear in his notes about the sale history of the painting, so Rother went through the archives and published more than five hundred pages of research as part of her doctoral thesis on the subject. It was eventually determined that the Chagall had been part of the “biggest art transaction of the Nazi era,” in which 4,401 paintings were transferred to the Prussian state. This is an exemplary case of how tracking down the provenance of a piece of art can reveal secrets about its wartime past.

Inge Reist, Director Emerita of the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Collection in New York, presented on her own institution’s important role in rescuing and preserving these important images during and after the war. The Frick was the “nexus for the efforts of the Monuments Men,” which was an assembly of art historians and curators who went to Europe, sometimes into active war zones, to ensure that priceless works remained unharmed by advancing Allied troops. Photos from the Frick’s considerable archives were used to demarcate the locations of important cultural monuments, such as the cathedral and leaning bell tower in Pisa. The institution also played a role in the work of restituting stolen artwork, most notably in Maria Altmann’s case.

After Ambassador Eizenstat’s Washington Principles Conference convened, Maria Altmann, the niece of a Jewish banker named Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, filed suit against the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, an Austrian state museum that she alleged had a stolen painting that had belonged to her uncle. It took seven years of legal action, including a Supreme Court hearing, for Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” also called “The Woman in Gold,” to be restored to Altmann’s family.

“The Woman in Gold” was one of several recurring themes throughout the symposium. The Altmann case was referenced several times, as were the Monuments Men, and several different stolen pieces by the Austrian painter Egon Schiele. They came to resemble a broader narrative, that of cultural trauma and loss, and many attempts—and resistance—to bring about restitution.

The second set of four speakers dealt with the more practical aspects of the work of restitution. How should museums treat art that might have been looted by the Nazis? What are the best practices for reconciling between concerned parties and institutions, and how might private collectors be motivated to do the right thing? Two women working professionally in the field of provenance and two attorneys with first-hand experience litigating the restitution of paintings explored these questions.

Brandeis alum Samuel A. Blaustein ’03, partner at Dunnington Bartholow & Miller in New York, detailed working in court on the case of ownership of two Egon Schiele paintings, “Woman in a Black Pinafore,” and “Woman Hiding her Face.” Blaustein’s firm was the first to litigate using the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act, which, among other things, amended the statute of limitations (six years) for stolen artworks to begin upon discovery that a piece of art was stolen, not from the moment, i.e. 1942, that it could have been taken. The outcome of the case “Rief v. Nagy,” meant that there is now a legal framework for the return of looted art to its rightful owners.

After Blaustein, Victoria Reed, Sadler Curator for Provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gave a fascinating talk regarding the museum’s provenance journey with a lot of seven porcelain figures with a dubious history of sale that were donated. The provenance process—determining where the figures were during the 1930s and 1940s—took ten years. Reed explained that the estate sale of the porcelain after the death Emma Budge was invalid. Budge’s heirs’ Jewish roots meant they did not receive any of the proceeds. The MFA gave them back to the Budge estate and then repurchased them. They are currently on view in the European Pottery Collection in the museum, along with information explaining their history.

There were other works, too, such as “Adoration of the Magi,” forcibly sold from the estate of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, a Jewish Italian businessman living in Paris, and Eglon van der Neer’s “Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior,” the owner of which, gallery owner Walter Westfeld, was persecuted by the Nazi regime in Wuppertal, Germany.

Reed closed by saying that the MFA’s goal was to “only acquire those works of art that we are confident that we can legally and ethically own.” The MFA follows guidance set by the American Association of Museum Directors, which helped to inspire the language of Ambassador Eizenstat’s Washington Principles.

The remaining two speakers added additional depth to the ideas. Monica Dugot, International Director of Restitution at the Christie’s International auction house, detailed a similar approach in her work. The process of determining provenance is often time-consuming and stressful, as the art dealer must negotiate the differing claims between seller and claimant. Nicholas M. O’Donnell, a Partner at Sullivan & Worcester in Boston, spoke on the broader legal conflicts, providing a more macro perspective in a presentation on the “High-Stakes Legal Conflicts over Nazi Looted Art.” In his remarks, he touched on both the Altmann case and another contested work by Egon Schiele. O’Donnell recently published a book on the subject.

Ambassador Eizenstat finished the proceedings, looking back at the last twenty years, post-Washington Principles. Countries such as Austria have led the way in terms of art restitution. France, while a signatory of the Principles, does not have deaccession laws, which means that even if a work of art hanging in the Louvre is proved to have been stolen by the Nazi regime, it cannot be returned to its original owners. Russia, which signed the Principles into law, has returned precious few paintings, such as those that the Red Army took from Germany as war reparations.

He said that the United States must “be an exemplar to the world” in art restitution. He detailed much-needed next steps: more funding for provenance research, the development of a global database and that universities such as Brandeis should invest in deepening the ranks of provenance researchers.

In the end, Ambassador Eizenstat was optimistic. He described “a cleansing effect on the whole global art market” that the development and professionalization of provenance had created. Returning looted art was important because it meant making right histories that the art world had wilfully ignored or obfuscated in the past. Art restitution was, he said, “one of the last remaining pieces of Holocaust restitution.”

Menu Title