Tension Between Museums and Nazi Spoliation Claimants

It should come as no surprise that there are tensions between museums and claimants over how to respond to claims for works of art stolen or appropriated by the Nazis.  Combine the general reluctance of many museums to allow transparency with the complicated stories of many works looted during World War II, and you have a recipe for ongoing disputes and mistrust.  This should explain why litigation may be a crude solution to many of these disputes, and why other nations—mainly in Europe—have done a better job at resolving these disputes than the United States. 

Robin Cembalest gives an overview for ARTnews, offering reactions from both sides.  The dispute stems from a basic disagreement of what kinds of wrongdoing should constitute loot.  Is a forced sale, or a sale under duress the same as outright theft?  Wesley Fisher, director of resaearch at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany argues “It is embarrassing that countries that previously did not have such good records in this field, such as Austria, are doing a very good job . . .  And the United States is not doing as well as it was.”  AAMD president Kaywin Feldman attributes the reluctance of some institutions to return objects to resources, “The real problem is that museums and claimants need help with research”.  I think both of those sides offer some truth, though paying for increased provenance research would surely be less expensive than litigating a claim.  At least part of the difficulty stems from different ideas of what constitute a looted work, and perhaps a commission modeled after the United Kingdom’s Spoliation Advisory Panel would offer a less controversial means of resolving these disputes.

  1. Robin Cembalest, Tensions are rising between the restitution community and U.S. museums over the proper way to handle Holocaust art claims, ARTnews, October, 2010, http://artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=3073 (last visited Sep 27, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

UK May Revise Nazi-looted Art Policies

The UK is considering new legislation that would revise the restitution process to more easily allow national museums to return works of art looted during World War II.  The Holocaust (stolen art) restitution bill would allow these institutions to return objects from their collections.  Andrew Dismore, the Labour MP for Hendon is quoted in the Guardian:  “I hope it will close another chapter from the Holocaust . . .  It means recognising a right that has been denied for decades. I suspect many people would be prepared to allow their artwork to stay in public collections but it’s their right to decide what happens to it.”

The change is needed because of cases like this one:

When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Feldmanns were evicted from their home, leaving a collection of Old Master drawings in Gestapo hands. Arthur died after being tortured by the Nazis in the Spilberk Castle prison in his home city of Brno. Gisela died in Auschwitz.

With the help of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, Feldmann’s descendants proved that four of his drawings had ended up in the British Museum. The museum was prepared to return them to the family but was blocked by a high court judge. Instead the family negotiated a deal, including an ex-gratia payment of £175,000, that allows the drawings to remain in London. 

Feldmann’s grandson Uri Peled, 66, who lives in Israel, said that although he did not wish to have the items returned, the principle of the bill – allowing the rightful owner to make the decision about what to do with their art – was important.

 The change will open speculation for claims for other works in UK institutions that may have been taken under less-than-appropriate circumstances—like the Parthenon marbles, the Benin bronzes, the Rosetta stone, or the Lewis chessmen.  As such the legislation is limited to “objects stolen between 1933 and 1945 by the Nazi regime”.  Though the legislation is sharply focused on a narrow historical period, one wonders why only those objects are left open for restitutions when the others are not.  The Second World War was a special circumstance perhaps, but its not clear how that historical period is different from other conflicts. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com