“Provenance is Everything”: Restitution of Plundered Art
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2008. All Rights Reserved
Henri Matisse, Paysage, Le Mur Rose, 1898,
oil on canvas
On Monday Le Figaro reported that the Centre Pompidou, after holding the above Matisse painting for 60 years, would be donating it to the original owner’s legitimate heir, Magen David Adom (the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross). “Le Mur Rose” is not a Matisse masterpiece; it lacks the bold color, decorative motifs, and flat spatial elements that characterize the artist’s best “modernist” work. Nevertheless, the painting has been tinged with notoriety by the truly gruesome details of its journey. The story’s wide syndication in the American press on Tuesday reminds us that, despite six decades, the fires of public interest in the issue of restitution of artwork looted by the Nazis from Jewish collections still burn quite brightly.
Art has been subject to plunder for centuries. During one of his invasions of Italy, Napoleon brought home to France a hoard of masterpieces that still adorn the walls of the Louvre. Between 1801-1805 Lord Elgin shipped to England the celebrated marble carvings from the Acropolis in Athens with permission from the Ottoman court. Aurel Stein and a host of other 19th-century archeologists liberated tens of thousands of the ancient treasures of Central Asia.
Art theft is a robust business today; Various sources estimate the value of stolen artwork to be between $6-$11 billion annually. No ancient or modern heist, audacious though some have been, compares in magnitude to rigorous institutionalized theft the Nazis engineered in Europe between the years 1940 and 1944. Through highly-organized bureaucratic efforts, millions of objects were removed from their rightful places, catalogued, transported and stored (in salt mines and castles) in preparation for the glorious cultural debut of the Third Reich.
In addition to usurping the collections of fleeing or deported Jews, Nazi officials of all ranks picked off art and artifacts throughout the unprotected or unsuspecting museums of Europe. They took objects from not just the vanquished countries like France and Holland, but also from their ally Italy. By some reckonings nearly 1/5 of all the known artwork in Europe ended up in Nazi hands. The plundering of cultural property was such a priority for the Nazis, that it became one of the other key charges against them at the Nürnberg trials.
Of course, one of the ironies of history is that as a young man Hitler was desperate to be a serious artist. From his existing work, we know that he was technically accomplished, but creatively uninspired. If only he’d been blessed with greater artistic vision. Apparently, he and Göring together often flipped through the many albums of photographs that documented the stolen works. One imagines that in these moments Der Kunstler-Führer reveled in the pure joy of aesthetic beauty of the works, while Der Despot-Führer summarily suppressed all moral responsibility.
Today cultural institutions are faced with a myriad of complicated issues involving legitimate claims by heirs of the original Jewish collectors, not to mention the moral and ethical questions that surround the looting and resale of antiquities. Social, cultural and legal entities continue to struggle to set standards that respect private ownership and public enjoyment, chart the middle ground between national and international heritage, and wrestle with reasonable statute of limitation cutoffs. Progress is being made.
One wishes for solutions that encourage the preservation of artwork in public view.
Details, Le Mur Rose
The Rape of Europa—PBS’ gripping documentary on Nazi pillage of artworks from all over Europe and Allied restitution efforts
“What would you decide?” —The Jewish Museum (Berlin)’s online restitution game
Interpol—Recently reported stolen
Stolen —Documentary on the Gardner Museum heist