Looted art

Top museums in Europe and North America face claims for Dürers looted during World War II

Poland and the Ukraine both want the Lubomirski drawings back


Twelve major museums in Europe and North America are resisting claims for the return of Dürer drawings which were looted during World War II from the Lubomirski Museum in Lviv, a city previously in Poland and now in the Ukraine. At the end of the war the important collection of 24 Dürers was found in an Austrian salt mine and in 1950 it was handed over by the Americans to the Lubomirski family, rather than returned to Lviv.

Directors from the 12 museums met on 4 December in New York, where they were hosted by the Metropolitan Museum. To assist their deliberations, they were given hundreds of pages of recently declassified US documents which explain American actions after the war. The museums then reaffirmed the “correctness” of the decision not to return the 24 Dürer drawings to Lviv. The legal situation is now complicated because competing claims have been made by both the Ukraine and Poland.

Following the meeting, Dr Adolf Juzwenko, director of the Ossolinski Institute in Wroclaw, Poland, confirmed to The Art Newspaper that claims had recently been filed with each of the museums. Part of the Lubomirski and Ossolinski collections were legitimately transferred to Wroclaw after World War II, because Poland’s border had been shifted. Similar claims for the Dürers have been submitted by the Stefanyk Scientific Library in Lviv, set up by the Soviet Union after the original Lubomirski-Ossolinski museum was dissolved in 1939.

The museums which have received the Polish and Ukrainian claims are the Art Institute of Chicago, the Barber Institute of the University of Birmingham, the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam (two drawings), the British Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art (two drawings), the Courtauld Institute, the Metropolitan Museum (three drawings), the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the National Gallery of Canada, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the Pierpont Morgan Library. Eight drawings are in private collections.

The 24 Dürer drawings had originally been given by the Lubomirski family to the museum which they established in the 1820s, in what was then Lemberg, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The city became Polish after World War I and was later occupied by the Red Army in 1939. The Lubomirski museum was formally abolished by the Soviet Union and its contents deemed to be State property. In 1941 the city was occupied by the Nazis, and the Dürers were then seized for Hitler. After being hidden in the Alt Aussee mine in Austria, the drawings were recovered by American troops in 1945.

Instead of being returned to Lviv or Wroclaw, on 26 May 1950 the Dürers were handed over by the US authorities to Prince George Lubomirski, who shortly afterwards sold them through Colnaghi (The Art Newspaper, No. 93, June 1999, p. 3).

At last month’s New York meeting, US State Department envoy J.D. Bindenagel argued that the handing over of the drawings to Prince Lubomirski had been made with “due diligence, deliberation and care”, and represented “a prudent decision based on the facts and on Allied restitution policy.” However, he stressed that “the US government has made no determination of the validity of the current Polish claim.”

The legal arguments discussed in the US documentation are complex, but essentially revolve around three questions:

oWas it right for the American authorities to have abandoned their policy of handing over war loot to governments, not individuals?

oWas it right to have given the Dürers to the Lubomirski family rather than to the museum which had been set up in Lviv or its successor in Wroclaw?

oWas Prince George Lubomirski the legitimate head of the family?

On all three points, the official US documents appear to back up the handing over to Prince Lubomirski, a decision which the 12 museums describe as “correct”. In particular, a key 1866 Lubomirski agreement had specified that if the museum was ever disbanded, then its contents should revert to its hereditary curator, the head of the Lubomirski family.

However, the US papers only present part of the case, and the Poles and Ukrainians may now submit other documentation and arguments.

The Poles argue that the 1866 agreement included a clause which would mean that if the museum were abolished and then reestablished within 50 years, its contents should be returned by the family. Although the 50-year period has now elapsed, if it did have legal force, then it should have prevented Prince Lubomirski selling off the Dürers in the 1950s. At their meeting last month, the 12 museums rejected this Polish interpretation of the “50-year rule”.

The museums will now invite Polish representatives to New York for discussions. The US State Department documentation has also been passed to the Ukrainian authorities. The matter is therefore now in the hands of the Poles and the Ukrainians. One option in the UK would be to refer the claims to the government-established Spoliation Advisory Panel.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Top museums face claims for Dürers'