by Marc Masurovsky
One should place the ultimate answer to this question in its proper context. By May 1945, somewhere between 15 and 20 million art objects of all sorts, from masterpieces to portraits of your favorite saints and relatives, had been misplaced due to civil unrest, persecution, war, genocide, and theft.
Of those misplaced cultural objects, a small number fit the moniker of “culturally-significant” or “national treasure” or both, depending on who is defining those two very odd expressions. For the sake of the argument, let’s just say 1 to 5 per cent of the misplaced objects fit those categories, or 100,000 (lowest number) to 1 million (highest number). The rest fell into the general bucket of culturally not so significant or insignificant, again, depending on who is expounding on this odd categorization.
Postwar Allied restitution policy ended up focusing on the 1 to 5 percent of objects lost or missing due to State-sponsored mischief between 1933 and 1945. For the rest, compensation schemes were foisted onto shell-shocked survivors and their kin due to an institutional absence of interest amongst postwar governments to aid those victims in locating and recovering their missing cultural property for reasons mentioned above. Many of the culturally significant objects and those earning the label of “national treasure” came from State collections plundered by the Axis or from private collections owned by rather wealthy individuals with close ties to State museums in countries dominated by the Axis. Those items received favored treatment in the eyes of the Allies and their representatives, referred to as “Monuments Men”.
The Allied powers’ prime directive was the rehabilitation of Europe (read that part of Europe not occupied or influenced by the Soviet Army and its government) especially as the incipient Cold War became a full-fledged game of geopolitical antipathy between former wartime allies.
As a consequence of the aforementioned factors and those tied to the inevitable human condition—people over property—most survivors did not file claims in the immediate postwar period and only did so after deadlines had passed and the only chance of recovering anything was close to 0.
By 1956, the US State Department had estimated that approximately several hundred thousand cultural objects of all kinds and shapes and value were still being claimed through its good offices by individuals from more than 30 nations.
From the mid-1990s to today, since there is no concerted international effort to tally the total number of claimed objects that are registered as such with national governments, we can only guess that, perhaps, the figure is close to or in excess of the number declared by the State Department in 1956, since most of the claims were never satisfied.
Nations that are signatory to international compacts known as the Washington conference of 1998 and the Terezin Declaration of June 2009 should conduct a census of all outstanding cultural claims registered as of now in their care and publish those results for public consumption.
b/ what is the total number of art objects restituted?
Historically, we only have repatriation figures from various postwar governments and official statistics regarding actual physical restitutions up to the early 1950s. Since then, there is very little public information that can be found about how many art objects were returned until the late 1990s.
Those nations that have established restitution committees (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Austria) have compiled figures regarding the number of objects that have been claimed through their auspices. But no statistics are tallied pertaining to the number of objects returned through direct negotiations with museums, auction houses, institutions, corporations, and private individuals.
c/ what is the total value of art objects sold after restitution?
The only indication of value comes from press reports about items being auctioned after restitution. It can safely be assumed that the objects with an Austrian provenance—mostly oil paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele—have fetched the highest prices at auction following their restitution, mostly due to the infatuation by the upper tiers of the global art market for such works, regardless of their inherent and implicit esthetic value. Those works alone have fetched in toto more than half a billion dollars. It might be safe to conservatively estimate the total value of restituted objects at slightly more than a billion dollars since the late 1990s. But that figure needs to be carefully verified through an elaborate survey of the field of art restitution.
d/ what is the total value of so-called “art restitution litigation?
This question is unfair and unjust but it does capture the collective imagination that impugns all sorts of evil motives to lawyers who seek opportunities wherever they can. We can only surmise how costly litigation efforts can be once we fuse the fees earned from seeking restitution and preventing restitution. Usually, fairly well-heeled law firms are recruited as outside counsel by museums in order to safeguard the integrity of their collections and rebuff attempts by claimants to assert their claims to title. On the plaintiffs’ side, there is an odd mix of solo practitioners and small and large firms involved in art restitution. All told, there are not more than 100 or so attorneys—yes, you read it!—who work on art restitution cases as an integral part of their legal practice if we combined North America, Europe and Israel. Since most plaintiffs cases are adopted on a contingency fee basis, usually 30 per cent, you should take the estimated value of restituted objects and divide that figure by three in order to get an idea on the estimated value of the litigation for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Likewise, for those lawyers defending their clients against outside claims, the fees can easily rise into the millions of dollars for each claimed object. Most of the claimed objects that are subject to intense years-long litigation hold values in excess of 1 million dollars.
Where does all of this leave the bewildered field of provenance research? You guessed it. The two main incentives underlying provenance research are to 1/ safeguard art objects which are part of a museum’s collection or that of an individual collector or 2/ obtain the restitution of such an art object.
What does this mean in terms of the objective and empirical integrity of the research being conducted on the history of an object? How do these legal undertakings affect the very nature of provenance research as distinct from its initial intent as an art-historical practice?
What is the future of provenance research and can it be salvaged as an objective, scientific field of inquiry?