by Marc Masurovsky
Up until the mid-to late 1990s, provenance research remained within the province of trained art historians working in cultural institutions where art objects are cared for and displayed for the benefit of the public. The research aims to enhance the understanding of the object—its author, its physical attributes, the period in which it was produced, the reasons for its existence, and how it evolved over time and space.
This kind of research is an academic/intellectual exercise that helps ascertain the authenticity of an object and its place in the history of art, writ large.
It is not a requirement incumbent upon its practitioner. Provenance research is one of many duties that “come with the job.” If it does not get done, no one gets fired. More often than not, the information that is collected about the object does not enter the “public record” insofar as it is communicated to the general public. If it is communicated, that is left up to the discretion of the institution where the research is conducted.
Then, the 1990s came and went, and, all of a sudden, “provenance research” became something else entirely.
If I had been working in a museum in the wake of the scandal surrounding the misuse of Swiss bank accounts owned by persons of Jewish descent who may or may not have perished during the Holocaust, I would have been rather oblivious to any debate about loot in general. Once the debate about the mishandling of “Jewish bank accounts” (I hate that expression!) transferred into the (mis)handling of art objects nestled in the permanent collections of countless museums both in North America and Europe, provenance research entered the spotlight front and center.
If I had been working in a museum at the time that the “Portrait of Wally” by Egon Schiele had been seized at the Museum of Modern Art of New York in early January 1998, I probably would have wondered: what is that all about? And I would have naturally sided with the then owners of the painting, the Leopold Foundation of Vienna, and the exhibitors, the Museum of Modern Art, wondering what Robert Morgenthau, then district attorney of Manhattan, had had for coffee on the day that he decided to order the New York Police Department to seize the painting.
I would have done so because my training would have precluded me from even wondering if I should even worry about whether or not the institution that I served had actual title to the objects under my care and examination. Why should I have worried about title since I simply assumed that my institution was the rightful owner?
The right thing to do is to acknowledge that the beast that has become “provenance research” has been transformed from an innocuous art-historical practice into a tendentious, litigation-laced, means to an end: does the research into the origins of an object lead to the maintenance of that object in the collection that I help steward or does it lead to the de-accessioning of the object because of some historical wrong that broke the chain of ownership of the object, thus changing its status to “restitutable”?
Since the seizure of “Portrait of Wally” in early January 1998, provenance research lost its innocence. Battle lines have been drawn between defendants upholding their rights to keep art objects under fire for being “looted”, on one side, and plaintiffs demanding the return of those art objects arguing that they were the rightful owners whose families had been despoiled for racial, ethnic, religious and other reasons at some point between 1933 and 1945 during the twelve year reign of the Nazi Party and as a result of the expansionist war decreed by Adolf Hitler and his minions against Europe’s “undesirables”-Jews, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, emotionally and physically challenged individuals, and anyone else who was caught in the crosshairs of a continental-wide fit of man-made madness, verging on an apocalyptic nightmare worthy of any painting signed by Hieronymous Bosch.
There had been a glimmer of hope at the time of the so-called Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets of November 30-December 3, 1998. Art was not supposed to be on the calendar of the conference. The seizure of the Schiele paintings (actually, two paintings had been seized at MoMA in early January 1998) changed the configuration of the planning for the Washington Conference. American policymakers were not pleased about the seizure because they argued that it had besmirched the bilateral relations of the United States with Austria. In so stating, the US government had sided against the claimants and had upheld Austria’s argument at the time that the entire flap over “Wally” was a private matter to be resolved between the claimants—heirs of Ruth Bondi-Jarai—and the Leopold Foundation, then owner of the seized paintings. Still, and this is for another installment, Morgenthau’s muscled intervention at MoMA triggered an existential debate inside Austrian political and cultural circles which forced Austria to reexamine its entire relationship with its past as it affected the illegal seizures of Jewish cultural property. The end result: the only restitution law in the world which mandates “provenance research” in all Federal public cultural institutions of the Republic of Austria.
Begrudgingly, the US government and its many allies at the planning table for the Washington Conference inserted art as one of the many different types of looted assets whose fate needed to be deliberated on by the attending nations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). The Washington Conference produced the so-called non-binding “Washington Principles”—11 recommendations that have become de facto “policy” for lack of a better word in many nations that want to remove that cultural monkey off their backs.
For some, the Washington Conference was a success. For others, it was a dismal failure. For those who deemed it a success, the Conference provided a unique forum to get a sense of where the world stood as far as justice to Holocaust survivors was concerned. The principles notwithstanding, everyone went home thinking they had done God’s work for three days. Those who saw in the Conference a dismal failure balked at the so-called Principles as yet another diplomatic way out of taking full responsibility for not having done anything concrete to render justice to the victims of plunder while throwing a sop at museums, auction houses, and other privateers of the art market by reassuring them that, although provenance research was highly recommended to fill “unavoidable gaps” in the history of ownership of art objects under their care and stewardship, “fair and just solutions” ought to be sought in order to ensure a measure of justice for all. In the end, for the naysayers, the Washington Conference led to a massive failure of international public policy, thus creating a vacuum of power and decision-making over the fate of countless art objects whose newfound status in legal limbo—plundered or not? Restitutable or not?—had to be resolved not with legislation but through, oftentimes, vicious legal battles pitting museums’ hired guns against plaintiffs’ hired guns.
The search for justice over a massive crime of plunder tied to genocide has turned into an international legal slugfest. Instead of chasing airplane crash victims, it has become more profitable to seek out victims of plunder.