by Marc Masurovsky
One would have thought that this matter of who owns what object stolen during the Nazi era would have been settled by now. After all, either one can identify the owner or not.
Simple? Not quite.
The identification process of the rightful owner of an art object which was looted between January 30, 1933 and May 9, 1945, requires research. That effort is tedious and laborious in personnel days stretching into months and in other ancillary costs—travel, lodging, and other related indirect expenses associated with the collection of information located in remote sites far away from the site of discovery of the looted object.
When there are umpteen thousand objects whose owners are not readily identifiable, the problem becomes compounded and requires a political solution at the international level.
During the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 20th century, namely the Holocaust and the genocidal campaign against the Jews of Europe, every Jewish household on the European continent which lay in the path of the Nazis and their local henchmen was subjected to plunder, seizure, and, oftentimes, destruction. Where did the contents of these Jewish households go? Everywhere.
On 3 December 1998, at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era assets, a set of 11 non-binding principles were put forth, largely inspired by the American museum community, to guide nations and their cultural sector in the treatment of objects shown to having been displaced during the Nazi era.
Principle #9 addressed the unidentifiable ownership issue:
“If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis, or their heirs, cannot be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution.” I referred to this as “diplomatic hogwash.”
We are now nearing the end of 2019 and, still, there is no comprehensive approach to the disposition of art objects deemed “heirless.”
First, let’s go back to the wording. An object is “heirless” if there is no one around today to claim it as his/her rightful property by descent. To determine that the object is “heirless”, one has to conduct extensive research into its pre-Holocaust ownership. No research, no “heirless” verdict. The object remains in limbo land. After all, you have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a person of Jewish faith owned the object. How can you tell if an object was owned by someone Jewish? Does it exude some mysterious aura which is reminiscent of something “Jewish”? That is preposterous. We saw this egregious behavior with the Gurlitt scandal. And yet, intelligent people walk into German museums and proclaim that all objects in their collections with uncertain ownership which were accessioned after 1933 are, most likely, the property of Jewish owners. To that, I say categorically: “No!”.
What to do?
Much ink has been spilled since June 2009. Looking back, it is clear that a proper resolution of the “heirless” problem is to conduct systematic provenance research in public and private collections worldwide. The likelihood of art objects with uncertain provenance which might have been the property of a Jewish owner is high in European, Israeli, and American collections. That’s where the research focus should be placed. To conduct such research, funds are required. A timeline should be established to research these objects and determine, once and for all, whether or not they are heirless. Once that decision is made, all concerned groups and governments should hammer out an acceptable solution to the final disposition of these objects.
I am clearly opposed to the following:
The solution that I favor is to ask museums which host these objects, most likely to tell their story as accurately as possible in order to educate the public. Their mission is in part to educate and share knowledge with their visitors, rather than cherry pick which objects should be discussed, at the expense of those objects with tortured histories. This reasoning also applies to looted antiquities, indigenous objects, ritual and sacred artifacts plundered from communities worldwide.
There are many other ways by which to honor “heirless” objects and their unknown owners. But the first step is to stop the political posturing and to come up with a scientific, rational approach to clear up the ownership issue. For that to happen, it requires a substantial investment, but it is an investment that all concerned nations need to share.