by Marc Masurovsky
“Beginning with a look back at the Washington Conference of 1998, the conference aims to discuss the developments that have taken place in the individual countries since then, in order to address a number of questions for the future: What spectrum is there for fair and just solutions? How can open gaps in provenance be dealt with? What does provenance research need in order to be able to work effectively? How can its methods be used adequately in education and training, in exhibitions and in museum communication? And above all: What contribution to a culture of remembrance can provenance research achieve?”
Twenty years ago, eleven Washington Principles were defined and issued as non-binding recommendations for national governments, cultural institutions and the proverbial art market to follow and abide by as a “soft” means of raising awareness about the racially- and politically-motivated displacements of Jewish-held property, cultural and other, between 1933 and 1945, which provoked illegal transfers of title and ownership from Jewish to non-Jewish possessors. Since then, there have been countless lawsuits and judicial proceedings filed by Holocaust claimants and their families in different legal settings on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean to try and recover what they argued was rightfully theirs. At the same time, museums and auction houses were placed under closer scrutiny, not by regulatory overseers, but by lawmakers, Jewish officials, lawyers, historians, researchers, journalists and NGO’s, in how they presented the contents of their collections, especially those items that were transacted between 1933 and 1945. In the case of the two largest auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, their sales and consignment practices fell under the magnifying glass to screen the provenance of items offered for sale and ensure that they did not indicate possible mishandling during the Nazi years, which could lead to a possible claim to block the sale of the item in order to facilitate a restitution to an aggrieved owner.
How can open gaps in provenance be dealt with?
Here we are, in 2018, contemplating yet another international conference to reminisce over the Washington Principles. At that conclave, participants will be asked to contemplate “how to deal with open gaps in provenances.” What exactly has happened since 1998, if it is not putting into place complex strategies on how to address those “gaps.” It is hard to imagine how this question is pertinent unless the organizers of the conference have not been keeping tabs with the evolution of the provenance research field, however quixotic it has been.
What spectrum is there for fair and just solutions?
Washington Principle #8 states:
The real question should be: have current possessors been fair and just to Holocaust claimants? Please explain your response, whether positive or negative.
What does provenance research need in order to be able to work effectively?
The framers of the November Berlin conference on Washington Principles should make up their minds about the focus of their gathering. Is it about the future of the Washington Principles or is it about provenance research? Is it about assessing the merits and limitations of the Principles or is it about provenance research? Are they suggesting that provenance research lies at the root of restitution proceedings and “fair and just solutions”? If so, they should state this idea openly. In other words, they seem mighty confused about what they are trying to achieve in November 2018, as if twenty years have come and gone without them witnessing too much. One can grow impatient with such “innocent” questions raised almost in rhetorical fashion to stimulate a discussion which might not actually happen. If one wishes to delve deep into the vagaries and limitations imposed on provenance research by institutions subsidizing and acquiring such research, the discussion might soon become contentious. But contention is not a desired outcome, much as it unfolded at the Franco-German Bonn Conference of November 2017 on the wartime art market in France, where the fault lines on the financing of research in Germany by the Lost Art Foundation were exposed in a rather blunt manner. Do we want such a recurrence to take place in Berlin? I doubt it. If that is the case, the line of questioning should be altered and focused on the crucial issues facing provenance research—lack of funding, lack of focus, too much political meddling in the direction of the research.
How can [the] methods [of provenance research] be used adequately in education and training, in exhibitions and in museum communication?
That’s a rather funny question because most museums—public and private—in Europe and North America oppose almost religiously any discussion of National Socialism, the Holocaust, the Second World War, Nazi expansionism, collaboration with the Nazis, as integral parts of the narrative to explain how these movements, trends, and events would have shaped the fate of objects in their collections. So instead of asking “innocently” how these methods can be used “in education and training, in exhibitions and in museum communication”, perhaps the framers of the Berlin conference should provide a sober assessment to the participants as a starting point:
There is no education, there is very little provenance training, if any, there is no talk of the larger historical context in the presentation of ownership histories in exhibitions and in “museum communication”. Ask why that is, instead of pretending that there is training and education.
What contribution to a culture of remembrance can provenance research achieve?
This question is astounding in and of itself. It might subsume that restitutions and “fair and just solutions” combined will become obsolete and a thing of the past. Instead of focusing on justice, why not use the history of objects to engage in “remembrance” of lost lives, lost art, the Holocaust and all of its ugliness. Isn’t it better that way? Remembrance is the ticket out for many people to clear their conscience and feel that they are being morally and ethically correct in how they treat objects with dubious histories. Perhaps, we should just set aside the ugliness of the past and focus instead on the loss of human life, as perceived or hinted at through the history of objects with Holocaust-laden stories and interruptions.
It’s hard to fathom how, after twenty years, adult men and women who are supposed to be experts and who are respected for their wisdom and insights, who occupy positions of leadership in institutions that steer and foster research and education on the most complex, most heinous crime—genocide and its corollary, plunder—perpetrated by men and women against other men, women, and children, only because of what they were—Jews–, can propose a framework of discussion which suggests that not much has happened in the twenty years that elapsed since the Washington Conference on Holocaust Assets.
I am tongue-tied.
In the mean time, the best advice that I can give is to hold a parallel conference that discusses the following themes:
-Throw out the Washington Principles, rewrite them and adapt them to the realities of the 21st century;
-Forget about “fair and just solutions”: they constitute a corporate welfare program for claimants, or how to buy out the claim without losing title to looted works in one’s collection.
-Fund provenance research at much higher levels than they are currently,
-Establish provenance research training programs on both sides of the Atlantic in order to train new generations of researchers, art historians into the finer aspects of contextual research that actually weaves the larger history into the history of displaced objects and inculcates critical thinking into their methodologies.
-Learn how to tell stories that are meaningful and truthful, not spun and woven tales designed to make museums feel better about themselves.