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US museums deny holding war loot

Museum directors summoned before the House of Representatives

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The directors of four of America’s leading art museums have assured US legislators that their collections are not repositories for war loot.

Officials from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Washington’s National Gallery of Art testified at a hearing on 12 February before the Banking Committee of the United States House of Representatives that they had created a new task force to help track art seized from Jews during World War II that might have found its way into the market and into American museums.

At the hearing, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced that under his leadership, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) task force seeks to balance the interests of families of Holocaust victims and the museums that might have bought art looted from Jewish families during the Nazi era without knowing it.

“The task force has already recommended the creation of a mechanism for the fair resolution of World War II claims such as mediation, arbitration or other forms of alternative dispute resolution; reconciling the interests of individuals or their heirs, who were dispossessed of works of art, with the complex legal obligations and responsibilities of art museums to the public, for whom they hold works of art in trust,” he said.

The proposed task force reflected an effort to avoid the “so sue me” approach in disputes, National Gallery of Art director Earl Powell III told the legislators.

The museums may have some new legislation to guide them on future acquisitions. At the hearing, Charles Schumer, an aspirant for higher office in New York, which has a crucial voting block of Jewish constituents, outlined a bill, co-sponsored by fellow New York Representative Nita Lowy, that would provide funding for Jewish organisations that help families trace war loot. The law would also force the federal government to scrutinise its own collections for potential war loot. More importantly, Schumer told the museum directors, “we [seek to] codify into federal law a New York State court decision that asks anyone who makes an art purchase to do a reasonable title check of the art work. This background check, known as a due diligence search, is very similar to what a purchaser of a used car would have to do.”

Faced with the implication that museums and the art market are under-regulated, the museum directors maintained at the hearing that there have been less than half a dozen serious claims on alleged war loot in their collections, and that they have already been scrupulous and open in the way they have built those collections, unlike French museums and, said Philippe de Montebello, Swiss banks.

“At least since World War II, we have listed every acquisition in our annual report, and it is very broadly disseminated,” the Met director told the congressmen, “works of art in American museums are not dormant or hidden assets. Surely, there is a major difference between museums which display, publish and invite dialogue on their collections, and the financial institutions which have been shown to have hoarded for half a century the spoils of war and genocide, not in the open as with works of art, but in the darkness of total secrecy.”

But the museum directors gave an incomplete story at the hearings, said Willi Korte, a founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project of the Klutznick National Jewish Museum of B’nai Brith in Washington, because, he said, the people who actually lost the art in question or their descendants had been given no opportunity to address the committee. “I think it is a bit odd that a hearing is held pertaining to the role and responsibility of US museums and the art dealing community, and we did not have one art theft victim here—in sharp contrast to the hearings we had on Swiss bank accounts and Nazi gold, where we always had victims of the Holocaust and victims of Nazi plundering,” he said.

The committee’s chairman said that theft victims were kept out because they were involved in litigation, although MoMA, which is in court over disputed paintings, was invited to testify.

The Schiele case

Active claims by two such victims shed a different light on the restitution crisis that the AAMD task force purports to address. In December, as a retrospective devoted to Egon Schiele on loan from the State-owned Leopold Foundation in Vienna was about to close at the Museum of Modern Art, two families of Holocaust victims charged that paintings in the exhibition had been looted by the Nazis. Neither family has yet filed a lawsuit, but each requested that the paintings in question be kept in New York to be investigated.

“Portrait of Wally” (1912), depicting Schiele’s mistress, was claimed by the family of Lea Bondi Jaray, a Jewish art dealer whose collection was seized by the Nazis as she fled to London in 1938. The other work, “Dead city III” (1911), has been claimed by the heirs to Fritz Gruenbaum, a comedian and collector who died in Dachau in 1940, although a Gruenbaum heir may have sold the paintings and other works legally after the war.

In a case brimming with coincidences, one of those Gruenbaum heirs is Rita Reif, a former art columnist and sale room reporter for the New York Times. (In an editorial, the Times urged that the pictures be returned to Vienna so that the international network of art loans would not be damaged. The Times’s former publisher and principal shareholder, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., is chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ronald Lauder, former Ambassador to Austria, is chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and a Schiele collector. Mr Lauder is also founder and funder of the newly established Commission for Art Recovery, an organisation within the World Jewish Congress devoted to recovering art plundered from Jews by the Nazis.)

Some in the art world predict that international loans will be a casualty of this dispute. “Art museums such as MoMA depend on art loans from foreign institutions. It is important for US museums to offer foreign institutions the security of knowing that loan agreements will be honoured,” MoMA’s assistant general counsel, Stephen W. Clark, wrote to Henry Bondi, the nephew of Lea Bondi Jaray. (At last month’s hearing, De Montebello of the Met saw no evidence so far of any new apprehensions among foreign lenders as a result of the MoMA dispute.)

MoMA cited its obligation to the lender, the Leopold Foundation in Vienna, and insisted on sending the pictures back to Europe. That move was blocked by the Manhattan district attorney, who subpoenaed the works as allegedly stolen property. In response, the Museum of Modern Art filed a motion to quash that subpoena, which the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Pierpont Morgan Library, all AAMD members, have supported in writing.

“My hope is that reason will prevail,” said Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, “that once the situation with the district attorney is resolved, we will be able to fulfil our obligation to our lenders, return the pictures, and any claims that may follow from that be actively pursued directly with the Leopold Foundation.”

Yet Austria’s record in hearing appeals from Holocaust victims has been appalling, experts agree. They say that for decades after World War II, letters inquiring about missing art went unanswered in Austria and cite the well-known fact that the Austrian government kept unclaimed works of art locked up for years in the Mauerbach Monastery, until pressure from American Jews forced the Austrians to hold a public sale of unclaimed property two years ago.

Ronald Lauder helped pressure the Austrians toward holding that sale when he was US ambassador to Austria. Now, however, as the funder of the World Jewish Congress’s Commission for Art Recovery (CAR), Mr Lauder believes that the Austrians can be trusted to decide who owns the disputed Schieles. “ I’m very confident that the Austrian government would have wanted this decision to be made very promptly and correctly, particularly with the entire world watching. I think I have the assurances in the Austrian government that they will look at all the various facts”, Mr Lauder told reporters after the hearings.

He cited an Austrian commitment to an arbitration process for the painting, although seventy-six year-old Henry Bondi, whose family has sought the picture for years, had been given no such assurances and was sceptical of assurances from the Museum of Modern Art or from Ronald Lauder.

For now, Mr Bondi’s picture remains the subject of a criminal grand jury investigation. On 5 March, the New York State judge will rule whether the district attorney had the right to subpoena the work to conduct that probe.

The museum directors in Washington participated voluntarily, but House Banking Committee member Mark Foley, Republican of Florida, said of them: “With this legislation, we are putting people on notice that we want full access to files, catalogues, and other information to demonstrate ownership and how any piece was acquired.”

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