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

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