by Marc Masurovsky
IV. In establishing that a work of art had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, consideration should be given to unavoidable gaps or ambiguities in the provenance in light of the passage of time and the circumstances of the Holocaust era.
In view of the number of legally-trained individuals who are involved in international diplomatic negotiations and the drafting of complex documents for submission to representatives of many foreign nations, one would think that better care would be paid to vocabulary.
“work of art”:
The definitions vary for this word grouping. For some, “work of art” is interchangeable with “art piece” or “artwork” or “objet d’art”. For others, it has a narrower and more elitist meaning: “an object made with great skill, especially a painting, a drawing, or a statue.” One way or another, high quality is synonymous with those words. And those words exclude all other “objets d’art” which, ironically, serve as synonym for “works of art.”
“unavoidable gaps” in provenance:
If we follow the dicta of global museums such as the British Museum, the provenance will contain only “relevant” and “important” information. Another layer of complexity, another filter of information added to the task of “filling the unavoidable gap.”
Quite clearly, this principle was written with a Museum association in mind which rails constantly against those who demand that their provenances be impeccable and gap-free. No one has and will ever make such a request from a museum or gallery or auction house.
Gap-filling (not like at the dentist’s) pertains mostly to the 1933-1945 period. It would be good practice on the part of museums, and the rest of the art world, to exercise enough diligence so as to include as much “relevant” information as possible in the provenance of an object under their care and ownership.
“passage of time”:
Time is elusive and so are record-keeping and people’s memories. Passage of time is a non-issue and should not even be included. In fact, when one reads that expression, one can only see a veiled threat by a museum invoking “latches” and flinging it at the claimant for not having “done enough” to research the fate of his/her object.
“circumstances of the Holocaust era”:
In June 2011, we noted that “Principle IV is the kiss of death for claimants. No one follows this Principle because provenance is everything. If there is a gap in the provenance, it is because the information is not available. If the information is not available, it is because access is being denied to the relevant information.” Hence, Principle IV is wishful thinking at best and utter diplomatic cynicism at worst. It can only be salvaged if action is taken to enforce Principles II and III.
Principle #4 could be rewritten and expanded as follows:
In establishing that a cultural, artistic and/or ritual object has been confiscated, misappropriated, been subject to a forced sale and/or other acts of illicit dispossession by the Nazis, their supporters, profiteers and Fascist allies across Europe between 1933 and 1945 and not subsequently restituted, every diligent effort shall be made to produce as complete a provenance as possible by filling gaps and resolving ambiguities produced within and/or facilitated by a context of racial persecution, warfare, and genocide during the entire period of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the Second World War, across Axis-controlled Europe between 1933 and 1945.