Looted Art Controversy

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 27, 1998. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 27, 1998. Partner content is not updated.

Looted Art Controversy

More than a decade ago, Toronto lawyer Aaron Milrad received an unsettling visit. A man claiming to be a veteran of the Polish underground said his group had carried out a postwar revenge murder of a Nazi general in East Germany, and had found a Rubens oil painting hidden in a rolled carpet under his bed. The Pole, who had lost an arm and an eye during the war and seen his comrades tortured and murdered, immigrated to Canada with the 60-cm-by-90-cm portrait, which may well have been looted by the Nazis during their push through eastern Europe. Now, he wanted to know how to go about selling it. Milrad showed a photograph of the work to a York University art history professor who, as fate would have it, identified it as one that had hung in her husband's office at the Prague Museum before the war. Under Canadian law, the painting would probably have to be repatriated. "When I told this fellow the work was stolen and he would have to deal with that, he seemed disappointed," Milrad said of his Polish visitor. "I could never locate him again."

Milrad cannot help thinking of that Rubens as a series of high-profile legal claims is forcing connoisseurs and curators around the world, including Canada, to re-examine their collections for art that went missing during and after the war - much of it stolen from Jews who were sent to their deaths, or from the museums of occupied states. But the Nazis were not the only plunderers. Paradoxically, the largest claim now pending involves Berlin's effort to recover more than a million works that Russian soldiers transported as victors' booty after Hitler surrendered.

As in the case of the Rubens, which lawyer Milrad saw only in a photograph, the ownership history - known in the art world as provenance - for European works during the turbulence of the 1930s and '40s is often murky. But now, 50 years after the war, potential heirs, along with art critics, are accusing the major galleries - as well as auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's - of deliberately deciding not to delve too deeply.

Currently, two factors - the declassification of Allied documents and the rise of electronic information sharing - are spurring a reinvestigation of many works that changed hands during the war. While Europe has been the main focus of scrutiny, Canada and other art-importing countries are also affected. "Most of the museums in North America know full well they have items with questionable background," says Milrad, who just completed a book on international law governing precious objects.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, for one, has had to defend itself publicly against a claim by the state museum in Budapest for an oil painting by 16th-century Florentine artist Giorgio Vasari, which was purchased by the Montreal gallery 15 years after the war. In the United States, there have been at least 20 instances of contested ownership in the past five years, culminating in January, when the Manhattan district court rocked the art world by impounding two paintings by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele that had been on display at the Museum of Modern Art and are claimed by relatives of Holocaust victims. "I think the story is going to grow," says Constance Lowenthal, director of a Commission for Art Recovery set up in January by the World Jewish Congress. Under the leadership of Edgar Bronfman Sr., that organization has had considerable success in forcing Swiss banks to pay restitution for money they pocketed from unclaimed bank accounts. Lowenthal says that more than 50 people have already called her about missing art - even though her office phone number has yet to be listed. "Once we announce we're here, we'll be inundated," she said.

Now, museum directors are scrambling to come up with policies to deal with the looted art - the North American association issued new guidelines just last month - and some worry a Pandora's box has been opened that will cast doubt on the ownership of objects collected from all over the world. But the WJC's Lowenthal insists the drive to right Nazi wrongs cannot be lumped together with current efforts by developing countries and North American native bands, for instance, to reclaim archeological and cultural artifacts from Western museums. That issue, says Lowenthal, has arisen as Western society becomes more sensitive to its past treatment of other cultures and to the appropriate display of ethnological material. Nazi-looted art is unique, she says, because the works were often confiscated immediately before individuals were deported or sent to their deaths. "It was a war crime at Nuremberg," she says. "It was illegal at the time it happened. It is not just a matter of looking back from today's point of view and saying, 'Oh, gee, wasn't that bad.' "

Hitler, who had been refused admission to art school in Austria, was determined to collect Europe's greatest art for a Führer Museum he planned to build in his birthplace of Linz, Austria. "The paintings I have collected were never meant for my private enjoyment but always for a gallery to be built in my native Linz," he wrote in his last will and testament, signed in a Berlin bunker in 1945. To stock the future gallery - as well as the private collections of foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and air force chief Hermann Göring - the Nazis followed Napoleon's example and stole their way through Europe, storing thousands of works in salt mines and castles in eastern Germany and Bavaria, with the expectation of retrieving them after winning the war. Another special unit looted libraries and archives and managed to collect a third of the valuable art held in private collections in France, much of it taken from five Jewish families who were prominent Paris art dealers. While the Nazis coveted Europe's Old Masters, they viewed modern works by Degas, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh, Picasso and others as "degenerate." They sold much of that material on the international art market - some leaving Europe via neutral Switzerland.

After the war, an American commission attempted to restore thousands of the works to the people and countries the Nazis had robbed. French authorities then returned 45,000 works of art to their owners and auctioned off about 13,000 others. But 2,047 valuable unclaimed works - including 15 Rodin sculptures and 16 Renoir paintings - quietly reverted to state collections, many of them unseen until last year when public pressure led to several exhibitions in the hope that heirs would come forward. In late 1996, after years of pressure by art journalists, Austria held an auction of unclaimed art that had reverted to its state museums, and donated the proceeds to the country's remaining Jewish community and other victims of Nazism. "After the war, we had owners in search of their paintings; now we have paintings in search of their owners," says Hector Feliciano, a Paris-based journalist who tracked some of the hundreds of stolen French works in his 1996 book The Lost Museum. That text, along with American historian Lynn Nicholas's 1994 book The Rape of Europa, sparked much of the new investigation. Feliciano estimates there are 20,000 objects on Nazi collection lists whose locations remain unknown. They are believed to be in museums and private collections from Seattle to Buenos Aires.

Canadian artist Vera Frenkel says public awareness of the Nazi looted art has skyrocketed in the four years since she began to explore the issue while an artist in residence at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts. "Even in 1994, raising the provenance question made people uncomfortable," she says. "But now it is being aired more fully." Frenkel has produced a video art installation on the subject, titled Body Missing, which was first mounted in Linz. Its related Internet Web site has spawned queries from around the world, placing her in the midst of the global effort to expose missing works. "A member of my family who had an important collection of painting and sculpture died in Auschwitz," writes one e-mail correspondent, wondering where to start to look for it.

There have, as yet, been no publicized claims by Holocaust survivors in Canada. But that does not mean there is no looted art in circulation. "For sure, you have art in Canada that the Nazis stole," says Dutch journalist Pieter den Hollander, who is writing a book about nearly 1,200 still unrecovered pieces from the collection of Jacques Goudstikker, a Jewish dealer who fled Amsterdam in 1940. Prior to 1924, Goudstikker had owned Lucas Cranach's 16th-century oil Venus, which has been hanging at the National Gallery in Ottawa since 1952. About a year ago, the gallery's European art curator, Catherine Johnston, got a surprise while watching a television documentary. It included black and white footage of "our Cranach" being pulled from Nazi packing crates after the fall of Berlin. Goudstikker had sold the painting to Dutch art dealer Ernst Proehl, who apparently sold it against his will to Göring in 1940. "He [Proehl] managed to recover the painting after the war," says Johnston, adding: "Of course, we don't have the papers." Proehl then sold the painting to another Dutch dealer, she says, who sold it to the National Gallery in 1952 - complete with proper papers.

The National Gallery carried out an aggressive acquisition of European art during the postwar period, some of it with Canadian public funds that had been frozen in the Netherlands during the war. Johnston says the Gallery did an exhaustive probe of its collection to produce a catalogue that was published in 1987. "We did look at the provenance of all our works, looking for gaps," she says. "We didn't find anything." But she does acknowledge that the nature of the art world often makes it impossible to have complete documentation. "Whenever we buy something we try to make sure it was not obtained illegally," she says. "But sales between dealers aren't public." Dutch journalist Hollander says Canadians may well have legitimately purchased works from reputed auction houses after the war that are only now being questioned. "We double check," says Johnston. "You only have so much information at your disposal."

The most contentious issue in Canada is the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts' request that the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts hand over Vasari's small oil painting of Jesus turning water into wine. Part of the renowned Esterhazy collection amassed by a prominent family of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Marriage Feast at Cana is now worth an estimated half-million dollars. It was acquired by the Budapest museum in 1870 and was well documented until being lent to the Hungarian ministry of finance, before the ministry's building was bombed in 1944. Museum spokesmen say they believed the work had been destroyed, but a Hungarian collector apparently bought it for the equivalent of $100 from a state-run consignment store in 1961. He gave it to his daughter in Canada who, in turn, sold it for $2,000 to the Museum of Fine Arts. The Budapest museum has been trying sporadically to get the painting back ever since officials there saw it listed among the Montreal museum's new acquisitions in 1964. In 1993, after the fall of Hungary's communist regime, the Montreal museum offered a co-ownership arrangement, but officials in Budapest turned that down.

The Montreal museum, which says it has a Hungarian shop receipt for the painting, takes the position that the Vasari was legitimately offered for sale by the Hungarian state. "It was the government in power at the time," says spokesman Maurice Boucher. "You can't rewrite history. It wasn't illegal. It was immoral." But Andrea Mécs, a Canadian lawyer representing the Budapest museum, says the Hungarian government did not even know the painting still existed at the time of its sale. Besides, says Mécs, the painting left the country without the necessary permit for the export of pre-20th-century works. "It was a state-run shop like every butcher shop, every pastry shop," says Mécs. "That was communism. It shows a remarkable lack of understanding of that era to claim it was a government consignment store."

In Toronto, by contrast, the Art Gallery of Ontario returned five 17th-century Italian drawings to Berlin, before that city's museum authorities even knew where to look for them. When he was installed as the gallery's director in September, 1995, Maxwell Anderson brought in outside experts to examine parts of the 25,000-object collection, especially those acquired from Europe since the 1930s. "I was very clear that I wanted it meticulously researched," he says. Soon, art technicians spotted faint stamps showing the five drawings were part of the valuable Pacetti collection and had somehow been removed from Berlin after the war, possibly by a U.S. army officer. In 1996, Anderson sent the drawings to the Berlin state collection - which oversees 17 individual museums.

Anderson, who is on the board of the New York City-based Association of Art Museum Directors, which covers Canada as well, says 80 per cent of acquisitions come through donations and bequests, which makes an iron-clad ownership record difficult to ensure. "The good-faith purchaser may have been misled. The donor may have been entrapped," says Anderson. "None of us wants to be caught in a lie." While he is scrupulous about Second World War art, Anderson says repatriation should be limited to works looted this century. "The idea that the issue should be opened up beyond the Holocaust will not survive scrutiny," he says. "If we start playing this out to its greatest extent, the Louvre would be empty - as well as the British Museum - and we would no longer be engaged in the care of art, but in national politics."

With the rights to cultural objects interpreted differently by the courts of different nations - or, as in Canada's case, by various galleries - the issue of what belongs where is destined to be governed more by moral suasion and bilateral politics than by international law. Canada is one of the few Western countries to have signed a UNESCO treaty to repatriate illegally imported works. But even that law only covers art that arrived in Canada after the legislation went into effect here in 1978. The AGO's Anderson, along with artist Frenkel and increasing numbers of people delving into the issue, says the best solution for some disputed works may be to redo accompanying plaques so historic injustices that have accompanied particular works on their journey are given their due. As Frenkel notes, no museum in the world is truly clean.

Maclean's July 27, 1998