“Provenance is Everything”: Restitution of Plundered Art

© 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.

Once in Adolf Hitler’s “collection”: Jan Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668,
oil on canvas, 19 3/8 x 17 3/4 inches

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.

Wider Connections

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

Provenance of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bauer-Bloch (now at the Neue Galerie, New York)

Albert Rosenberg and the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg

Interpol—Recently reported stolen

Stolen —Documentary on the Gardner Museum heist

The English Assassin

Stolen Art of the Holocaust at the Israel Museum

3 Responses to ““Provenance is Everything”: Restitution of Plundered Art”

  1. I just played the game “What would you decide” on the German website. I think it’s a bit skewed in favor of “whatever you do, it’s going to come out wrong.” The game was fun but the true ethical viewpoint rather cynical. The heirs of the Jews whose lives were taken and whose goods were stolen are not ALWAYS ungrateful, people who understand the need to return stolen art to their original owners are not ALWAYS hostile and sullen and if the muck of the past gets exposed – well, it needs to be. Perhaps I’m asking too much of an on line cartoon game but the slant left me with a sour taste, especially as all of the examples related to art stolen during WW II.
    The other issues of art “looted” from the various countries, whenever, where ever, how ever and whatever is a more complex issue. Whenever Zawiss, the current Director of Antiquities hears about an Egyptian artifact anywhere in the world, he starts yelling for its return. How much of this is justified and how much political posturing? Greece and Italy are demanding the return of art which they clam was stolen. Well, some was and some (apparently) was bought in good faith. What benefit is it to the host country to have more and more art returned when they can’t display, much less protect what they now have? Is any money being spent to guard archaeological sites or develop new ones? I’m certainly not in favor of the illegal trade in antiquities but suppose that the continuing furor drives the current trade even further underground? Who benefits then? Furthermore, some of the most outright looting of European treasures was done by the occupying Soviet Army at the end of WW II. The countries in question can ask and plead as much as they want but Russia is not going to return what was taken; the PBS documentary made that sadly clear. So, the countries who demand the return of art and antiques are dependent on the good will of those they demand it from and one of these days, that good will is going to evaporate if the demands are seen as unreasonable.

  2. i just discovered your blog and am fascinated by both your choices and your intelligent commentary.

    a little sidenote to this image: the robe the astronomer is wearing is actually a kimono from japan: as in

  3. I agree the game is a bit simplistic; although if you put yourself in the shoes of the various “players” intelligently you can begin to see how complex an issue restitution is. The thorniest problem may well be the lack of an agreed upon statute of limitations. While there are indeed many good faith buyers who have unwittingly purchased purloined artworks/antiquities, there have also been a great number of dishonest buyers who ignore the lack of provenance, overlook a shady provenance or worst of all knowingly purchase a stolen piece of art. I don’t foresee a time when these kind of people self-regulate. Therefore, the world’s conscientious museums, galleries, dealers, and governments will have to continue to reach workable global solutions on this issue.

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