Nazi loot

Who should own Nazi-era assets in Jewish museums?

Museums in the US and Israel contain Judaica from pre-World War II European Jewish communities, redistributed by the Allies who thought this the best solution for material taken from people and institutions that no longer existed



It is welcome news that new guidelines have been issued by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, to assure that "all Holocaust-era works will be identified, and all provenance information in the museums regarding those works will be disclosed."

Especially interesting is the statement that "the agreement......envisions a gradual schedule that would start with European paintings and Judaica."

This new levelling of the playing field by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets (see p.15) marks a major step forward in considering the complex legal and ethical issues which promise to remain only partially resolved in the foreseeable future.

The next phase of museum investigations would go beyond simply researching works of art with suspicious gaps in their ownership histories, so that "...even a work with no doubt as to its provenance would be included under the new 'full disclosure' guidelines."

The surprise here is the inclusion of Judaica as a category to be examined.

This subject arose, not without some discomfort, during last October's International Forum on Holocaust-Era Assets (The Art Newspaper No. 108, November 2000, p.1), held in Vilnius, and heavily guided by the American Commission.

Obviously, some Jewish material was simply destroyed; but the Nazi fetish with this soon-to-be-destroyed people also included gathering Judaica into various depots, the best known assemblage of which now forms much of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

The surviving Judaica poses some awkward problems. For while some Jewish museums and Judaica collections predate the Nazi-era, the major periods of creative growth in those institutions and even private collections have come after World War II.

This owes a great deal to various sociological and economic issues (the increased comfort felt by the Jewish community with its identity; increased Jewish affluence). But the significant growth also came about because of the extraordinary amount of Judaica that has appeared on the world's art markets over the past half-century.

Like all their other museum colleagues, most Jewish museum curators did not expend any effort looking at provenance gaps. Rather, a certain number of gaps have generally been taken for granted.

In some instances, where such gaps did not exist (because provenance was known), there was good reason to assume that something akin to clear title had been granted to the Jewish museum now holding that material.

But if one takes a different look at the issue today, is it possible that a large percentage of the collections in our Jewish museums may fall into a newly established category of suspicious material? Such a drastic assumption has never had to be made about the collections at, say, the Art Institute of Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The current effort to return material despoiled under the Nazis is something about which I have mixed feelings, since I do not know that Jews have better claim to their stolen goods than any other groups.There needs to be more discussion as to which other situations merit suspension of statutes of limitations.That being said, the case of the Jewish museums is peculiarly paradoxical. How will they now deal with the Judaica provenance research question?

"Judaica" is a category that generally includes library and archival material as well as works of secular and liturgical art.

I have heard the argument put forward that one cannot research Judaica in the same way one can research paintings; that one piece of silver, for example, looks pretty much like any other.

This is obviously not true, since museums go to great lengths to identify and present as singular many of the objects in their collections. After all, that is one of the ways they lay claim to the importance of their holdings.

Some Judaica was already published prior to World War II, and those publications should certainly be researched.

There are probably also various photo archives, such as the extensive one I have from my father's brief time as an art and Judaica dealer in Berlin during the late 1920s.

While not providing complete provenance information, such material might start to fill in some of the many gaps now being called to our attention.

Some Judaica will require no research at all from the museums which hold them, but they will demand the resolution of difficult ethical, if not legal, questions.

One example will suffice. The Jewish Museum of the city of Frankfurt-am-Main opened in 1988 with a stunning exhibition, “Was übrig blieb” ( that which remained).

The beautiful and well documented catalogue (still available) includes fifty choice works now held in Jewish public collections in New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. The catalogue also provides detailed documentation of the Frankfurt Museum of Jewish Antiquities, 1922-38, to which these stunning works once belonged.

The redistribution of this and other looted Jewish material after World War II by well meaning and specially constituted legal entities following its discovery by Allied troops then seemed an appropriate and logical approach to the problem of how to handle material taken from people, communities, and institutions that no longer existed.

It seemed then that most of European Jewish life would never revive, but today there are thriving Jewish communities in the most unexpected places, such as Berlin.

The legal question as to whether the current city Frankfurt Jewish museum is the legitimate successor to the pre-1938 Jewish community museum is almost less taxing than the ethical issue as to whether items in American institutions should return to the communities from which they originally came into that 1930s museum.

The diminutive (but growing) size of the Frankfurt Jewish community is sometimes adduced as an argument against this. I personally have considerable difficulty with this approach as it reminds me of Abraham's argument with God over the minimum number of righteous souls for which to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

Another argument, namely that the Jews now in Frankfurt are not descendants of earlier Frankfurt Jews, also does not hold water since a Jewish community is not based on such questions of ancestry; DAR-type discussions do not work well for Jews, even if they occur with some frequency. And there is already enough unpleasant discussion in the Jewish world about which Jews are authorised to legitimise which other Jews; we certainly do not need to find ourselves determining the bona fides necessary to be considered a genuine member of the Frankfurt Jewish community.

All these Frankfurt-type questions could be raised in Berlin, Cassel, and other German cities, as well as in central and eastern Europe.

Will museums in Israel— which are also major beneficiaries of what is now termed "Nazi-era cultural assets— now join in this recent effort to mete out a new kind of justice?

o John Howat, chairman of the departments of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has announced his retirement. Mr Howat has held several curatorial positions at the Met over 33 years, during which time he oversaw the construction and installation of the American wing, which opened in 1980. He is the author of The Hudson River School and a biography of Frederic Church.