“More than 70 years after the end of world war two and 20 years after the Washington Principles were promulgated, this may be our last opportunity to right, in some imperfect way, one part of the most ghastly crime in human history, before all of its 400,000 Holocaust survivors breathe their last breath.”
These were the words of Stuart Eizenstat, the US diplomat and author of the 1998 Washington Principles for the restitution of Nazi-looted art, speaking at a conference in Berlin last November, which was organised by the German Lost Art Foundation to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark principles. Eizenstat’s speech echoed a widespread view that efforts to address Holocaust-era spoliation are entering a new phase as those who survived Nazi persecution dwindle in number.
In his speech, Eizenstat said he believed the “glass is slightly more than half full” regarding the success of the Washington Principles, which, though not legally binding, were agreed by 44 countries and 13 non-governmental organisations, museums and auction houses. The 11 principles call on nations to be proactive and transparent in identifying looted property, and to find “fair and just solutions” to restitution claims.
It is estimated that 600,000 paintings were stolen by the Nazis – of which 100,000 remain missing – along with millions of everyday items such as furniture, china, books and decorative art objects. After the war, objects recovered by the Allies were sent back to their country of origin, where they often ended up in public collections rather than with their rightful owners.
Since 2000, five countries, including the UK, have established independent panels to resolve claims without the need for litigation. And in Germany, the definition of looted property has been broadened to include forced sale, expropriation (seizure of property by a public agency) and “flight assets” – items sold as a result of economic hardship and persecution. Austria has become a model of good practice, with around 30,000 objects restituted.
But Eizenstat acknowledged that these achievements alone were “not satisfactory”, saying it was “time for one last push to correct the flaws in implementing the principles”. Privately, others are blunter in their assessment. “Seventy years on, there’s very little restitution going on,” says an expert who prefers not to be named. “There are quite a lot of countries that actively refuse to restitute.”Many of the European signatories to the principles, including Spain, Portugal and Poland, have conducted or published little to no provenance research. Italy rejects claims even as it seeks to recover works looted from its own collections, attracting headlines recently for restitution claims against the Getty Museum in New York and a private owner in Germany.
Elsewhere, progress has ebbed and flowed. The Netherlands recently published extensive provenance research on its public collections, but it has also introduced a controversial “balance of interest” test to restitution claims, which weighs the interests of the current possessor against those of the claimant – an approach Eizenstat criticised for contravening the Washington Principles, according to one person who attended the conference.
Although Germany might be expected to lead in this area, restitution in the country is far from straightforward. In 2015, the government set up the German Lost Art Foundation to offer grants for provenance research. While its aims are laudable, the foundation has been criticised for failing to provide details of grant recipients or the outcomes of its research projects. A spokeswoman said it is planning to create a central database for this purpose, as well as a helpdesk to provide potential claimants with a first point of contact.
But further difficulties remain: as a federal republic, Germany has no standardised, written procedure for making a claim, an approach that has been described as a “recipe for chaos and inconsistency”. Until recently, the claimant and the possessor both had to agree to appear before the country’s spoliation commission – some museums simply refused. But as of November 2018, any museum that receives federal funding is obliged to appear before the commission.
Language can also be a barrier – even when provenance research is published, some countries do not provide translations for survivors and descendants who no longer speak their language of origin.
The obstacles that claimants face send a subtle message, says one source. “All these tests are just a way of saying, ‘We don’t want to return it’. So why not just say that? Don’t put people through the motions.”
As the last of the Holocaust survivors reach advanced old age, there is also a macabre feeling that some institutions are “waiting it out” in the knowledge that descendants may be less able to prove ownership. The Czech Republic, which holds thousands of looted objects in its collections, only hears claims by direct descendants, for example.
Even where museums have been proactive about informing people about looted art, there is a lack of clarity on what happens next. In some cases, having stirred up painful memories, a museum might leave families with no information on what they should do to recover their property.
Leading the way
In the years after the Washington Principles were agreed, UK museums published details of objects with gaps in their provenance on a central database, which is administered by the Collections Trust.
A landmark piece of legislation was also introduced in 2009 to enable national museums to return Nazi-spoliated objects. But some feel the UK’s early leadership in this area has lapsed. “There is a sense in the UK that it’s drifting and that not enough is being done,” says Webber.
It has been 15 years or more since many museums assessed their collections, during which time new technological tools and international research has emerged that could provide more insight into problematic objects.
The number of claims heard by the panel has been smaller than expected, says Mark Caldon, the senior policy adviser at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. This is partly because the UK holds fewer looted objects than countries that were occupied by the Nazis, but also because of the painstaking nature of the work. “It’s a case of chipping away slowly and persuading people,” says Caldon.
One sign of how things have slowed in the UK is the struggle in getting a private member’s bill through parliament that seeks to remove a sunset clause on the 2009 legislation, which is due to expire in November this year. Despite government assurances that the legislation would be renewed, it has twice failed to pass a second reading. The bill – which is supported by the UK’s national museums – was due to be debated for a third time last month but there is no certainty that it will be passed in time.
If the 2009 legislation expires, museums will no longer be able to return Nazi-looted objects, though the government would be liable to pay compensation to claimants.
A recent controversy at the National Gallery, London, highlighted the fact that some institutions are failing to abide by the spirit of the principles. The gallery’s much-vaunted £3.6m acquisition of a self-portrait by the female baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi in 2018 was marred when internal reports emerged that the institution had quietly added it to a list of objects suspected of having been looted by the Nazis.
Although the gallery said it was “fully satisfied” with the provenance of the work, some senior figures in the sector have been privately critical about its approach.
There are indications that museums – in the UK and elsewhere – are changing how they approach provenance research. This is reflected in the growing public discourse on colonial-era objects; increasingly, visitors are asking questions about how certain items have ended up in public collections.
Where it was once seen as a case of merely adding information to a database, there is now increasing awareness of how provenance research can be used as a powerful tool for public engagement, helping to raise consciousness about troubling aspects of history. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, recently appointed a provenance and spoliation researcher, who is tasked not just with researching the provenance of the museum’s Gilbert Collection but also with engaging visitors in his work (see box).
“One of our challenges will be to ensure that the historical responsibility is carried into the following generations,” says Freya Paschen, the spokeswoman for the German Lost Art Foundation. “The responsibility needs to be handed on, even if the last surviving victims of the Holocaust are no longer among us. Provenance research and its results can be a useful tool in carrying on this responsibility when integrated into museum education programmes.”
Although much work remains to be done, momentum has picked up in recent months. A new network was launched last month to increase cooperation on returning Nazi-looted art.
The Network of European Restitution Committees brings together five advisory groups, including the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Committee, to enable greater sharing of information and produce a guide for claimants, and intends to hold an international conference at the end of 2019.
It is impossible to overstate the emotional impact that restitution can have on survivors and their families, says Webber.
“One woman got her parents’ books back. She found her mother’s name written inside the front cover of one – she had never seen her mother’s hand-writing before. That’s what this is all about.”
The National Gallery’s 2018 acquisition of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria caused controversy after internal documents showed that the museum had quietly added it to a list of objects that could have been looted during the Nazi era.
In 2006, the British Museum paid an undisclosed sum to the heirs of Arthur Feldmann for four old master drawings seized by the Gestapo in 1939, after a ruling by the Spoliation Advisory Committee. Young couple in a landscape, c.1535-45, was one.
The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, returned three porcelain figurines to the heirs of the Jewish entrepreneur Emma Budge – whose estate was forcibly sold off by the Nazis in 1937 – after a ruling by the Spoliation Advisory Panel in 2014.
The Gurlitt trove, one of the most significant discoveries of Nazi-looted art in recent years, was found in a Munich apartment in 2012. The collection of 1,401 artworks, which was assembled by the war profiteer and art historian Hildebrand Gurlitt, contains paintings by Monet, Renoir, Matisse and old masters. It is now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland, while claims of ownership are established.
Last year, Jacques Schuhmacher was appointed as the provenance and spoliation researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Gilbert Collection, one of the most important decorative art collections in the world. The objects were collected by London entrepreneurs Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert from the 1960s onwards.
“When you look at what was collected, you can really see how much attitudes have changed to provenance,” says Schuhmacher. “In the 1960s, nobody really thought much about it unless the object came from royalty.”
As descendants of Jewish emigrants, the Gilberts would not have intentionally bought Nazi-looted items, he says, but gaps remain in the provenance of many of the items they acquired. Schuhmacher’s work is painstaking and intensive – “it requires a specific skill set” – including knowledge of how Nazi looting operations worked, familiarity with the Third Reich’s bureaucratic institutions and the ability to read dense documents from the 1930s in German.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult and potentially intimidating for claimants,” says Schuhmacher. “I look for red flags, such as the name of a Jewish collector, Jewish objects or auction houses known to have sold Jewish property.”
Schuhmacher has yet to find a looted object, but did come close when researching the origins of a gold snuff box. He discovered that it had once been held in the private collection of Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild, a Jewish art collector whose property was forcibly sold to the city of Frankfurt after Kristallnacht (the night of 9 November 1938 when Nazis destroyed 267 synagogues, 7,000 Jewish businesses were either destroyed or damaged, and more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps).
After a trip to the city’s archives, Schuhmacher discovered that the snuff box had been restituted to the family after the war and was a legitimate acquisition.
Schuhmacher conducts regular tours and says visitors are “extremely interested” in provenance research. “In a lot of cases, the history of what happened and who collected it is almost as interesting as the object itself,” he says. Hearing that an object has a troubling or moving history has a big impact on visitors, he adds.
To tap into this growing public interest, Schuhmacher is planning to create a provenance trail and a series of seminars to promote provenance research in the museum sector, the first of which will be held on 27 March.
“It’s not just about returning property, it’s about giving recognition to suffering and the fact that museums don’t want to be beneficiaries of the Nazis,” he says.