Museums “struggling” to recover Nazi-looted art

Jonathan Knott, 13.09.2017
Conference recommends countries fund dedicated researchers
A lack of resources means that museums are struggling to provide information on objects in their collections that may have been looted during the Third Reich, experts said at a conference yesterday.

The conference, which was hosted by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and sponsored by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), was held at the National Gallery. It focused on the question of how efforts to identify and return artworks lost during the Nazi era can be accelerated.

Antonia Bostrom, the keeper of sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), told the conference that researching object provenance was a challenge for all sizes of museum.

“I work in a very large national museum and even we are struggling,” she said. “Thinking about the onus on smaller regional museums that don’t have access to the resources that we do – that in itself is one of the big issues. How can we either help them, or how can they help themselves.”

Paul Jenkins, a former permanent secretary to the attorney general and a member of Tate’s ethics committee, said that he had been struck by the position of regional museums when conducting a review into the work of the UK’s spoliation advisory panel in 2015.

“Both in terms of understanding the processes and their research capability, they were really struggling. The arts council was providing some invaluable support but it wasn’t enough. That’s no criticism of the arts council,” said Jenkins.

The UK has a database of objects of unknown provenance between 1933 and 1945, held on the Collections Trust website.

But Bostrom said that museums’ provenance research was limited by available resources. “The question of whether museums are cataloguing and publishing provenance information fast enough, all goes back to one thing: resources, resources, resources,” she said.

“In some cases there may not be the wish or the wherewithal to do this research. It is a very specific sort of research. It’s historical research using primary and archival sources, and in most cases it requires exceptional German skills.”

Bostrom added that establishing standards for how provenance research should be conducted would help, but that additional government funding was also necessary.

“There have to be resources from on high – it has to be national, federal or whatever – to allow this to happen in a much more accelerated way,” she said.

The V&A will be creating a new provenance and spoliation research curator post in the near future.

Anne Webber, the co-chair of CLAE, said that even if detailed research was not possible, it would help if museums simply identified works with gaps in their provenance between 1933 and 1945. “It doesn’t immediately require the work to be done. Just identify the works and publish them,” said Webber.

Webber added that some museums were reluctant to deal with spoliation claims. “Some museums don’t have the experience of dealing with claims and the onus is foisted upon them to have to deal with it. Sometimes a museum may be reluctant to deal with it,” she said.

Five European countries (the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and France) have established spoliation claims processes, but these all work differently. Webber said that more standardised international procedures would help bring clarity. “I think it would help museums if they knew exactly how they were supposed to deal with things,” she said.

The conference finished with a series of recommendations, which included that “each country should identity, provide and properly resource a dedicated provenance researcher with the requisite knowledge and expertise to undertake training domestically and internationally”.

Other recommendations included working to unify spoliation processes internationally and improving access to documentation and information.

Donnell Deeny, a chair of the UK’s spoliation advisory panel, said that since being set up in 2000, the panel has considered 20 claims that fell within its terms of reference. 14 of these have resulted in the artworks being returned or the claimants receiving compensation.

The Panel began as an advisory non-departmental government body but in 2010 it was reconstituted as a group of expert advisers. 

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