Museums Israel

Israel steps up hunt for Nazi-looted art

Museums under pressure to research collections for Holocaust victims’ assets

The Israel Museum has restituted works, including this painting by Pissarro, which was sold at Sotheby’s last month

Israel’s museums have failed to do enough to find the rightful owners of works of art in their collections that were looted during the Nazi years, claims Hashava, the company created by the Israeli government in 2006 to restitute Holocaust victims’ assets to their heirs.

“Except for the Israel Museum, no other museum has been doing anything,” says Israel Peleg, the chief executive of Hashava, which says museums in Israel hold hundreds of works of art and more than a thousand items of Judaica that were stolen during the Nazi era. Peleg says that even the Israel Museum “should take more action”.

Ronald Lauder, the president of the New York-based World Jewish Congress, agrees that more needs to be done. ­“Israeli museums should be required by law to take a proactive approach and provenance research should be funded by the government,” he says. “Now is the time for Israel and its museums to make an unconditional commitment to return Holocaust-looted art.”

Custodians not owners

As a first step, representatives from ten museums met with Hashava and Israel’s culture ministry in January. Hashava is also hosting a three-day ­forum in June and expects 200 participants, with two days devoted to training in provenance research.

The culture ministry has asked museums to provide estimates of the cost of provenance research. Although no funds have yet been committed, Peleg is hopeful that, with the ministries of culture and finance on board, money will be forthcoming.

James Snyder, the director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, says: “We absolutely consider ourselves the custodian of these works and not the owner.” It held an “orphaned art” exhibition in 2008 and the institution has restituted 11 works. (Its predecessor, the Bezalel National Museum, also returned 11 works.) Snyder says: “In the past 15-plus years we’ve made every effort to be exemplary… We’ve taken the high road where there’s some ambiguity [about ownership],” he says. “With ­Judaica from no longer existing communities, we have a different position. We put that in the context of the universal continuity of Jewish ­material and hang onto them.”

Several of Israel’s other leading institutions take issue with Hashava’s claim that there are Nazi-looted works in their collections. Suzanne Landau, the director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, says her institution has not identified any. “We don’t think there’s more to do, but Hashava may have other methods,” she says.

In the Jewish people’s hands

“Museums in Israel are no different from museums in other countries – they want to maintain their collections,” says Wesley Fisher, the research director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, who is working with Hashava. But restitution also creates special dilemmas in Israel. “[It] sees itself as the homeland for the Jewish people, so [Nazi loot] was less of a necessity to deal with because the art was in the hands of the Jewish people,” Fisher says. “It didn’t cross people’s minds that it had to be done.”

After the Second World War, Nazi-confiscated works of art recovered by the Monuments Men team were returned to their country of origin, leaving that country to decide who owned them. The policy for works looted from Jews and Jewish institutions was different. “There was concern that art and cultural property looted from Jews and Jewish institutions shouldn’t be sent back to countries where the Jewish communities had been decimated or to governments that had oppressed Jews,” Fisher says. Those items instead were handled by the Jewish Restitution Successor Organisation, which returned items to people and institutions that could be identified. Where owners could not be identified, the “heirless” works were distributed according to a formula: 40% to Israel, 40% to the US and 20% to other countries.

Israel Peleg says that the archives of a predecessor to the Israel Museum (which was founded in 1965) indicate 400 paintings and 1,000 pieces of Judaica reached Israel this way.

Pissarro returned

Other looted works in Israel’s museums arrived as donations or purchases. “Like museums in any country, we know there is looted artwork from the art market,” says Anne Webber, the director of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, who negotiated the restitution of important works from the Israel Museum, including Camille Pissarro’s Le Boulevard Montmartre, Matinée de Printemps, 1897. It had been donated by the New York philanthropists John and Frances Loeb, and was restituted in 1999 to the heir of Max Silberberg, a businessman from Breslau killed in Auschwitz. It was on loan to the museum until it was sold at Sotheby’s, London, last month for £19.7m.

Museums’ slowness to examine their collections may partly stem from Israel’s “sense of entitlement” to works stolen from murdered Jews and devastated communities, says Ori Soltes of Georgetown University’s Jewish Studies department. “Israel has the view that we are the heartland of the Jewish people, and there’s an inherent legitimacy to [the works] being in Israel,” Soltes says.

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