20 July 2014

Book Review: Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World

co-posted with ARCAblog

Detail of Mark Wagner's Currency College of the Mona Lisa
Source: DesignBoom

Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World (ISBN: 9781472902924) is a notable attempt at compiling into cohesive curricula research by scholars such as Marina Bianchi, Tom Christopherson, Neil De Marchi, Elroy Dimson, Tom Flynn, Daiva Jurevičieně, Arjo Klamer, Roman Kräussl, Javier Lumbreras, Fleur Maijs, Benjamin Mandel, Clare McAndrew, Jianping Mei, Michael Moses, Laurent Noel, Anders Peterson, Rachel Pownall, Olivia Ralevski, Steve Satchell, Jaketrina Savičenko, Aylin Seçkin, Kyle Sommer, Christophe Spaenjers, Nandini Srivastava, Hans Van Miegroet, Thorstein Veblen, Olav Velthuis, and Luca Zan.

Published by Bloomsbury, it is edited by Anne Dempster (Sotheby's Institute of Art). Contributors include Tom Christopherson (Sotheby's Europe), Anders Petterson (ArtTactic), Olav Velthuis (University of Amsterdam), Hans J. Van Miegroet and Neil DeMarchi (Duke University), Marina Bianchi (University of Cassino), Rachel Pownall (University of Tilburg/University of Maastricht), Elroy Dimson (London Business School), Steve Satchell and Nandini Srivastava (Cambridge University), Christophe Spaenjers (HEC Paris), Laurent Noel (Audencia Nantes School of Management), and Arjo Klamer (Erasmus University).

The book takes a multidisciplinary approach, through alternative investments, art history, behavioral economics, cross-cultural studies, due diligence, macro- and microeconomics, Modern Portfolio Theory, emerging markets, provenance research and many other topics. It is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the international art market.

Petterson’s discussion of how the Internet has changed the art market was robust. His description of the art market ecosystem and how it is adapting in light of online galleries, artist portals, social media, blogs, online auction/art fairs, online inventory management, price databases, indices, investors, art funds and wealth management, showed that there is both a new audience and desire for transparency. In creating a more educated consumer, both traditional and upcoming entities have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Petterson’s article is a treatise against all those that desire not to adapt to provenance standards in the market.

Flynn’s discussion of the role of government and private corporations in art commissioning showed that more needs to be done in regards to authentication of art in the public space. What was striking about the article was that it showed a dissonance between corporate views on art and the industry, itself. A clear conclusion was that, in desiring to imagine itself as an ‘exception’ to business, the art world has only done itself more harm. As both a lecturer with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art and also in hosting a blog titled ArtKnows, Flynn, continues to be frontier of these discussions.

Satchell and Srivastava’s derivations about wealth and utility, adding upon Pownall’s essay, showed that there is still much more to connect between mathematical models, financial markets, and the art world. Integration of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, the price and wealth effects of Marshallian demand, attempts at indexation – whether through the Financial Times All Shares (FTAS) and the London All Art price index or the Mei-Moses index – the Miller-Modigliani capital structure theorem, and the aesthetic dividend, make the reader wonder if the time is here for further data integration with the Standard & Poor’s and Thomson Reuters of the financial world.

The most disappointing was Christopherson’s essay that showed some dissonance against “testosterone-fuelled bond traders” (Risk and Uncertainty 65). The main discussion on legal title, authenticity, issues of attribution comparisons, condition, and valuation was vague. In discussing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Artists Resale Rights, and Bribery Act, Christopherson described a desire to return to an imaginary past. The ultimate lesson learned appeared that he merely seems unsatisfied with changing business models in the art market.

The book leaves much to build upon; taking the theory to reality is clearly the next step forward.

12 July 2014

Should museums stop using technical defenses to prevent restitution of looted art? The debate rages...

Nicholas O’Donnell’s article on Ronald Lauder’s Editorial on Stolen Art and Museums Fails the Common Sense Test

By Pierre Ciric*

In his article titled “Lauder Editorial on Stolen Art and Museums Fails the Glass House Test,”[1] Nicholas O’Donnell attempts to respond to Ronald S. Lauder’s editorial published in the Wall Street Journal on June 30, 2014, titled “Time to Evict Nazi-Looted Art From Museums.”[2]

O’Donnell attempts to find legal shortcomings in Lauder’s editorial, which simply expresses the need for art museums to act responsibly by returning Nazi-looted artwork instead of raising technical defenses and mere pretexts to deny the rights of the claimants.

Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art
In his article, O’Donnell refers to the ongoing case brought by Léone Meyer against the University of Oklahoma, among other defendants, to obtain the restitution of “La bergère rentrant des moutons” (Camille Pissarro, 1886), currently on permanent display at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, Oklahoma.

Although O’Donnell—counsel to David Findlay, Jr. Gallery, a defendant no longer involved in the case—recognizes that the recent court decision is limited to whether the Oklahoma defendants could be sued in New York, he repeatedly brings up a 1953 Swiss court decision involving Camille Pissarro’s La Bergère as grounds for why Léone Meyer’s claim should fail, and why Mr. Lauder’s argument is baseless.

O’Donnell’s argument fails the common sense test. First, no one disputes that the Nazis stole La Bergère from Léone Meyer’s family.

"La Bergère rentrant des moutons," Camille Pissarro
Second, the 1953 Swiss court decision was not decided based on a late claim, as O’Donnell argues, but was decided against Léone Meyer’s father because he could not prove the “bad faith” of the art dealer who acquired La Bergère after it crossed the Swiss border from France.

Third, prior Swiss decisions involving looted art have long been held as doubtful or baseless in several U.S. jurisdictions. Even the Swiss government itself recognized in 1998 that the deck was stacked against claimants who wanted to file art restitution claims in Switzerland after World War II. New York courts have found/determined that “Swiss law places significant hurdles to the recovery of stolen art, and almost ‘insurmountable’ obstacles to the recovery of artwork stolen by the Nazis from Jews and others during World War II and the years preceding it." See for instance, Bakalar v. Vavra.[3]

Finally, O’Donnell misses the point of Mr. Lauder’s editorial. As French government officials have recently stated in a public forum dedicated to France’s efforts to track and restitute looted art, the time for “clean museums” has come. Hiding behind technicalities and procedural loopholes to delay basic justice, i.e. restitution of looted property, is not morally appropriate, even less so when public institutions are involved.

Ronald Lauder is right. It is time for museums to do the responsible thing. It is time for museums to “clean” their collections of any tainted artwork by returning Nazi-looted artwork.

* Pierre Ciric is a New York attorney, the founder of the Ciric Law Firm, PLLC, and a board member of both the French–American Bar Association and the New York Law School Alumni Association.  He currently represents Léone Meyer against the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma in her quest to obtain the restitution of “La bergère rentrant des moutons” (Camille Pissarro, 1886), currently on permanent display at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, Oklahoma.

[3] Bakalar v. Vavra, 619 F.3d 136, 140 (2d Cir. 2010); see also In re Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation, 105 F. Supp. 2d 139, 159 (E.D.N.Y. 2000)

27 June 2014


Press Contacts:

In Washington, DC: Marc Masurovsky, (00) 1 202 255 1602 , plunderedart@gmail.com
In New York, NY: Pierre Ciric (00) 1 212 260 6090, pciric@ciriclawfirm.com

For Immediate Release
Washington, DC, USA – June 27, 2014 - The Holocaust Art Restitution Project ( “HARP”), based in Washington, DC, chaired by Ori Z. Soltes, is denouncing a “shameful” and “tragic” decision by the French “Conseil des Ventes” (“Board of Auction Sales”), an administrative body in charge of regulating and supervising auction sales on the French market, which is refusing to suspend an auction sale of sacred masks owned by the Hopi and Navajo tribes, scheduled for Friday, June 27, 2014.

On June 22, 2014, HARP, through its President, Ori Z. Soltes, wrote to the Conseil des Ventes, to request an administrative suspension of an auction sale scheduled for Friday, June 27, 2014, which involved sacred objects of both the Hopi and the Navajo tribes, and for which title never vested with subsequent possessors due to the sacred nature of these objects. Following a special hearing held in Paris on June 25, 2014, the Conseil des Ventes, which has the power to suspend such sales, just issued its decision, refusing to impose a suspension.

“The decision by the Conseil des Ventes is both tragic and shameful. The Conseil has refused to consider the provenance information for these objects in its decision, when everyone agrees in the United States that title for these sacred masks could have never vested with subsequent possessors. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the Conseil held that the Hopi tribe, in fact ANY Indian tribe, has no legal existence or standing to pursue any cultural claim in France. This dismissive denial of access to justice flies in the face of the progress made in international law by all tribes and indigenous peoples, as the French government had expressed its support for the legal status of indigenous peoples by its endorsement in the UN General Assembly in support of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),” said Soltes.

HARP is a not-for-profit group based in Washington, DC, and chaired by Ori Z. Soltes, dedicated to the identification and restitution of looted artworks require detailed research and analysis of public and private archives in North America. HARP has worked for 16 years on the restitution of artworks looted by the Nazi regime.

16 June 2014

Provenance research—now and later (Third Installment)

In the spirit of an on-going "think-aloud" pertaining to the nature of provenance research and the art restitution movement, here are some additional thoughts for discussion.

There are no official statistics regarding:

a/ the total number of art objects claimed, b/ the total number of art objects restituted, c/ the total value of art objects sold after restitution, and d/ the total value of so-called “art restitution litigation.”

a/ the total number of art objects claimed:

By May 1945, somewhere between 15 and 20 million art objects of all sorts, from masterpieces to portraits of your favorite saints and relatives, had been misplaced due to civil unrest, persecution, war, genocide, and theft.

Of those misplaced cultural objects, a small number fit the moniker of “culturally-significant” or “national treasure” or both, depending on who was defining those two very odd expressions. For the sake of the argument, let’s just say 1 to 5 per cent of the misplaced objects fit those categories, or 100,000 (lowest number) to 1 million (highest number). The rest fell into the general bucket of culturally not so significant or insignificant, again, depending on who is expounding on this odd categorization.

Postwar Allied restitution policy ended up focusing on the 1 to 5 percent of objects lost or missing due to State-sponsored mischief between 1933 and 1945. For the rest, compensation schemes were foisted onto shell-shocked survivors and their kin due to an institutional absence of interest amongst postwar governments to aid those victims in locating and recovering their missing cultural property for reasons mentioned above. Many of the culturally significant objects and those earning the label of “national treasure” came from State collections plundered by the Axis and from private collections owned by wealthy individuals with close ties to State museums in countries dominated by the Axis. Those items received favored treatment in the eyes of the Allies and their representatives, referred to as “Monuments Men”.

The Allied powers’ prime directive was the economic, political, social and cultural rehabilitation of Europe (read that part of Europe not occupied or influenced by the Soviet Army and its government) especially as the incipient Cold War became a full-fledged game of geopolitical antipathy between former wartime allies.

As a consequence of the aforementioned factors and those tied to the inevitable human condition—people over property—most survivors did not file claims in the immediate postwar period and only did so after deadlines had passed and the only chance of physically recovering most if not all of their lost property was close to 0.

By 1956, the US State Department had estimated that approximately several hundred thousand cultural objects of all kinds and shapes and value were still being claimed through its good offices by individuals from more than 30 nations.

From the mid-1990s to today, in the absence of any concerted international effort to tally the total number of claimed objects registered as such with national governments, we can only guess that, perhaps, the aggregate total figure of claimed cultural objects is in excess of the number declared by the State Department in 1956.

Moreover, there is no available as to the number of claims filed against museums and other institutions that hold or trade in art objects.  The number of objects claimed might well be in the thousands but proof being in the pudding no one can be sure of anything at this point in time.

Recommendation: nations that are signatory to international compacts known as the Washington conference of 1998 and the Terezin Declaration of June 2009 should conduct a census of all outstanding claimed cultural objects registered as of now in their care and publish those results for public consumption and analysis.  The same appeal can be made to the members of the art market and ask that it provide figures representing the number of objects in their custody which are subject to claims without giving out names out of a concern for data privacy.

b/ the total number of art objects that have been restituted since the Washington Conference:

Historically, the most accessible statistics are repatriation figures from various postwar governments and official statistics regarding actual physical restitutions up to the early 1950s. Since then, there is very little public information that can be found about how many art objects were returned to rightful owners between the mid-1950s and the beginning of the 21st century.

Those nations that have established restitution committees (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Austria) have compiled figures regarding the number of objects that have been claimed through their auspices. But no statistics are tallied pertaining to the number of objects returned through direct negotiations with museums, auction houses, institutions, corporations, and private individuals.

c/ the total value of restituted art objects is directly dependent on the answer to the aforementioned.

The recipients of restituted art objects are usually driven to sell them because they cannot afford to keep them in their possession as a result of their inflated value and the ensuing insurance and other expenses that accompany their maintenance as one's newly found property. Other successful claimants part with the restituted objects because there are a multitude of individuals who have a rightful claim to a share of the value of the restituted object(s). There can be as many 50 or 60 individuals who can benefit from the monetization of restituted objects, thus significanly diluting the actual amount earned from the sale of the restituted object(s).  And then, there are those folks out there who have recovered their objects and prefer to sell them for their own personal reasons which are theirs only to be treated as a private matter, free of outside commentary.

The only indication of value comes from press reports about items being auctioned after restitution. It can safely be assumed that the objects with an Austrian provenance—mostly oil paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele—have fetched the highest prices at auction following their restitution, mostly due to the infatuation by the upper tiers of the global art market for such works, regardless of their inherent and implicit esthetic value. Those works alone have fetched in toto more than half a billion dollars. It might be safe to conservatively estimate the total value of restituted objects at slightly more than a billion dollars since the late 1990s. But that figure needs to be carefully verified through an elaborate survey of the field of art restitution.

d/ the total value of so-called “art restitution litigation”:

Although this question is unfair and unjust, it still needs to be answered out of a desire for transparency.  We can only surmise how costly litigation efforts can be once we fuse the fees earned from those seeking restitution and those working to prevent restitution. Usually, museums and art dealers will recruit fairly well-heeled law firms as outside counsel in order to safeguard the integrity of their collections and rebuff attempts by claimants to assert title. On the plaintiffs’ side, there is an odd mix of solo practitioners and small and large firms involved in art restitution. All told, there are not more than 100 or so attorneys—yes, you read it!—who work on art restitution cases as an integral part of their legal practice if we combine North America, Europe and Israel. Since most plaintiffs cases are adopted on a contingency fee basis, usually 30 per cent, you should take the estimated value of restituted objects and divide that figure by three in order to get an idea of the estimated value of the litigation for plaintiffs’ lawyers since the late 1990s. Likewise, for those lawyers defending their clients against outside claims, the fees can easily rise into the millions of dollars for each claimed object. Most of the claimed objects that are subject to intense years-long litigation hold values in excess of 1 million dollars.

Where does all of this leave the bewildered field of provenance research?

The two main incentives underlying provenance research since the late 1990s are to 1/ safeguard art objects which are part of a private or public collection or held by an individual collector or 2/ obtain the restitution of such an art object.

What does this mean in terms of the objective and empirical integrity of the research being conducted on the history of an object? How do these legal undertakings affect the very nature of provenance research as distinct from its initial intent as an art-historical practice?

What is the future of provenance research and can it be salvaged as an objective, scientific field of inquiry?

Provenance research—now and later (Second Installment)

Since the seizure of “Portrait of Wally” in early January 1998, provenance research has lost its innocence. Battle lines have been drawn between defendants upholding their rights to keep art objects under fire for being “looted”, on one side, and plaintiffs demanding the return of those art objects arguing that they were the rightful owners. These claimants argued that their families had been despoiled for racial, ethnic, religious and other reasons at some point between 1933 and 1945 during the twelve year reign of the Nazi Party and as a result of the expansionist war decreed by Adolf Hitler and his minions against Europe’s “undesirables”-Jews, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, emotionally and physically challenged individuals, and anyone else who was caught in the cross hairs of the Axis powers in a continental-wide fit of man-made madness, verging on an apocalyptic nightmare worthy of any painting signed by Hieronymous Bosch.

There had been a glimmer of hope at the time of the so-called Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets on November 30-December 3, 1998. Art was not supposed to be on the calendar of the conference. But the seizure of the Schiele paintings (actually, two paintings had been seized at MoMA in early January 1998) changed the configuration of the planning for the Washington Conference. American policymakers were not pleased about the seizure because they argued that it had besmirched the bilateral relations of the United States and Austria. In so stating, the US government had sided against the claimants and had upheld Austria’s argument at the time that the entire flap over “Wally” was a private matter to be resolved between the claimants—heirs of Ruth Bondi-Jarai and Fritz Grunbaum—and the Leopold Foundation, then owner of the seized paintings. Still, Morgenthau’s muscled intervention at MoMA triggered an existential debate inside Austrian political and cultural circles which forced Austria to reexamine its entire relationship with its past as it pertained to the illegal seizures of Jewish cultural property and how postwar Austrian authorities had mishandled claims for return of such looted assets. The end result: the only restitution law in the world which mandates “provenance research” in all Federal public cultural institutions of the Republic of Austria.

Begrudgingly, the US government and its many allies at the planning table for the Washington Conference inserted art as one of the many different types of looted assets whose status needed to be discussed by the representatives of nations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) attending the international event. The Washington Conference produced the so-called non-binding “Washington Principles”—11 recommendations that have become de facto “policy” for lack of a better word in many nations that want to remove that cultural monkey off their backs.

For some, the Washington Conference was a success. For others, it was a dismal failure. For those who deemed it a success, the Conference had provided a unique forum to get a sense of where the world stood as far as justice to Holocaust survivors was concerned and to promote greater assistance to their dwindling numbers. The principles notwithstanding, everyone went home thinking they had done God’s work for three days. Those who saw in the Conference a dismal failure balked at the so-called Principles as yet another diplomatic way out of taking full responsibility for not having done anything concrete to render justice to the victims of plunder while throwing a sop at museums,  and other members of the art market by reassuring them that, although provenance research was highly recommended to fill “unavoidable gaps” in the history of ownership of art objects under their care and stewardship, “fair and just solutions” ought to be sought in order to ensure a measure of justice for all. In the end, for the naysayers, the Washington Conference led to a massive failure of international public policy, thus creating a vacuum of power and decision-making over the fate of countless art objects whose newfound status in legal limbo—plundered or not? Restitutable or not?—had to be resolved not with legislation but through, oftentimes, vicious legal battles pitting museums’ hired guns against plaintiffs’ hired guns.

The search for justice over a massive crime of plunder tied to genocide has turned into an international legal slugfest.  Instead of chasing airplane crash victims, it became more profitable to seek out victims of plunder.

Provenance research—now and later (First installment)

This “think-aloud” is neither the first nor the last on a topic that has become, despite its innocuous phrasing, far more contentious than it ought to be.

For now, it is best to throw out some questions for which answers are not necessarily forthcoming.

Why all the fuss about provenance research?

Up until the mid-to late 1990s, provenance research remained within the province of trained art historians working in cultural institutions where art objects are cared for and displayed for the benefit of the public. The research aims to enhance the understanding of the object—its author, its physical attributes, the period in which it was produced, the reasons for its existence, and how it evolved over time and space.

This kind of research is an academic/intellectual exercise that helps ascertain the authenticity of an object and its place in the history of art, writ large.

It is not a requirement incumbent upon its practitioner. Provenance research is one of many duties that “come with the job.” If it does not get done, no one gets fired. More often than not, the information that is collected about the object does not enter the “public record” insofar as it is communicated to the general public. If it is communicated, that is left up to the discretion of the institution where the research is conducted.

Then, the 1990s came and went, and, all of a sudden, “provenance research” became something else entirely.

If I had been working in a museum in the wake of the scandal surrounding the misuse of Swiss bank accounts owned by persons of Jewish descent who may or may not have perished during the Holocaust, I would have been rather oblivious to any debate about loot in general. Once the debate about the mishandling of “Jewish bank accounts” (I hate that expression!) transferred into the (mis)handling of art objects nestled in the permanent collections of countless museums both in North America and Europe, provenance research entered the spotlight front and center.

If I had been working in a museum at the time that the “Portrait of Wally” by Egon Schiele was seized at the Museum of Modern Art of New York in early January 1998, I probably would have wondered: what is that all about? And I would have naturally sided with the then owners of the painting, the Leopold Foundation of Vienna, and the exhibitors, the Museum of Modern Art, wondering what Robert Morgenthau, then district attorney of Manhattan, had had for coffee on the day that he decided to order the New York Police Department to seize the painting.

I would have done so because my training would have precluded me from even wondering if I should even worry about whether or not the institution that I served had actual title to the objects under my care and examination. Why should I have worried about title since I simply assumed that my institution was the rightful owner?

I write these words simply because it is the right thing to do: acknowledge that the beast that has become “provenance research” has been transformed from an innocuous art-historical practice into a tendentious, litigation-laced, means to an end: does the research into the origins of an object lead to the maintenance of that object in the collection that I help steward or does it lead to the de-accessioning of the object because of some historical wrong that broke the chain of ownership of the object, thus changing its status to “restitutable”?

12 June 2014

Voyage en Pologne

Ruins of Warsaw Ghetto, leveled by German forces, according to Adolf Hitler's order, after suppressing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. North-west view, left- the Krasinski's Garden and Swietojerska street, photo taken in 1945
Source: Wikipedia
Il était une fois un garçon de onze ans. Un été, il partit en voiture avec ses parents de Paris à Cracovie. Lorsqu’il traversa la frontière polonaise, sa randonnée dura trois semaines, dans un pays hanté par ses fantômes. Ce garçon ne savait pas à quoi s’en tenir. Il pensait que l’air qui circulait autour de lui foisonnait de présences inexplicables. Dans les villes, à travers les campagnes reluisantes, qu’importe. Et puis, un jour, il demanda à ses parents de le conduire à Auschwitz-Oswiecim. Il insista. Son père rata le tournant par trois fois. Enfin, conduisant à dix kilomètres à l’heure, ils aperçurent un panneau indicateur qui mesurait à peine soixante centimètres. L’inscription portait le nom d’Oswiecim, chaque lettre noire soigneusement formée. Une flamme rouge servait de ponctuation. La route étroite mena la petite troupe directement au camp. Elle ne s’y attarda pas car la mère du garçon voulait quitter ces lieux maudits à tout prix. Mais le garçon voulait rester. Il était fasciné par les montagnes de cheveux, de lunettes, de valises, de peignes, de prothèses, les instruments de torture médiévaux pour écraser les cervelles, le mur contre lequel les détenus étaient assassinés par un peloton d’exécution.

Ils quittèrent le camp pour se rendre à Varsovie. Là, par un dimanche après-midi ensoleillé, le garçon et ses parents se promenaient le long des avenues désertes de la ville, dont les murs blancs l’aveuglaient tellement ils étaient éblouissants. Puis, venant de nulle part, ils tombèrent sur un juif chasidique, sa tête à peine visible dans l’embrasure d’une petite fenêtre au rez-de-chaussée d’un immeuble. C’était un bouquiniste. Ils lui achetèrent trois livres sur la Pologne, l’un deux s’intitulait: “Nous n’avons pas oublié, we have not forgotten, wir haben nicht es vergessen ! » Ce livre devint la bible du garçon sur la capacité inépuisable de l’homme à commettre des actes de cruauté contre hommes, femmes, et enfants, sans distinction.

Nous sommes seuls, en compagnie des âmes de millions d’hommes, de femmes, et d’enfants avalés dans un ouragan de haine et de cruauté, perdus à jamais, leurs cendres parsemées dans le vent, réduits en poussière, relégués à la terre. Des âmes agitées.

10 June 2014

The Real Monuments Men—and Women

by Elizabeth Karlsgodt, Associate Professor of History, University of Denver
Elizabeth Karlsgodt
Source: University of Denver,
Arts Humanities & Social Sciences

George Clooney’s latest film, The Monuments Men, offers audiences an action-packed adventure set in Europe during the final days of World War II. The film is based on the true story of American and European art experts who became officers in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section of Allied forces and recovered several million cultural objects from castles and salt mines that had become Nazi art repositories. It is a feel-good saga about American heroes who outsmart Hitler, the ultimate villain. The actual history of the Monuments Men is riveting in its own right, but without the happy Hollywood ending.

Franklin Roosevelt charged the MFAA officers with protecting European cultural heritage from the ravages of war. They initially focused on preserving churches, palaces and other historic buildings but ended up recovering the art found in Nazi caches as the Allies moved into Reich territory. The repositories held objects evacuated from museums in the Third Reich and stolen from German-occupied territories across the continent, such as Belgium’s famed Ghent altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo. Most tragically, the Nazis had plundered much of the loot from Jewish art collectors across Europe, while agents working for Hitler, Göring and other Party leaders had bought thousands of pieces relinquished by Jews under duress.

Madonna, by Michelangelo 
In Clooney and Heslov’s version of events, the Monuments Men race against time as the Third Reich is crumbling, trying to find art repositories before the Nazis destroy the hidden treasures. The Nazis, the story goes, would rather obliterate masterpieces than let them fall into Allied—especially Soviet—hands. The Germans are implementing Hitler’s Nero Decree of March 19, 1945, which ordered the demolition of infrastructure that could be useful to the Allies—railways, bridges, factories. In the film, the Germans include works of art as potential enemy assets and systematically burn paintings in the Heilbronn salt mine as the Monuments Men race through Germany to stop them.

In reality, Minister of Armaments Albert Speer largely thwarted implementation of the Nero Decree and the Germans did not carry out an eleventh-hour demolition of looted art. In Berlin and Paris, they had burned thousands of paintings they considered “degenerate”—Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist works they considered harmful to the Aryan mind and spirit—but they did not methodically destroy art they valued. On the contrary, Hitler aimed to preserve all the art the Nazis had accumulated, using it to glorify himself and the Third Reich.

Why would Hitler, the man who had wrought such destruction across an entire continent, preserve art? He was building the world’s greatest museum in his childhood hometown of Linz, Austria. His planned display of the continent’s masterpieces would symbolize his military power, much as Napoleon had done with the Louvre collection before him. Hitler’s last will and testament written the day before his suicide states that all works of art in his possession should go to the Linz museum: “It is my most sincere wish that this bequest be duly executed.” His drive to preserve fine art, however, was directly connected to the Nazi destruction of people who had owned it. Seizing and profiting from Jewish assets, including artworks, was central to the Nazi Final Solution.

It is true that Hitler ended up endangering the seized works of art by issuing the Nero Decree and feeding a climate of fear and uncertainty among German leaders as Allied forces advanced into Reich territory. In Austria, the fanatical Gauleiter August Eigruber intended to carry out Hitler’s orders and placed explosives inside the Alt Aussee salt mine, repository for 6500 works of art, including the Belgian treasures and works from Vienna museums. In early May 1945, Austrian mine officials received authorization from SS officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner to seal the mine and protect the art inside. Two MFAA members in the Third U.S. Army, Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein and Captain Robert Posey, arrived at the mine on May 16, 1945, a week after V-E Day, and oversaw work by Austrian miners to dig through the rubble and regain access to the mine, locating the cultural treasures.

In the film, we see the Monuments Men organized into a platoon. They survive boot camp in England together, land on the Normandy beaches, and develop a sense of camaraderie in their hunt for looted art. But such a platoon never existed. Instead, the military command scattered cultural officers across Allied armies and they most often worked alone or with one partner, meeting occasionally to share information and avoid duplicating efforts.

The challenge of working in isolation is illustrated by the work of Lieutenant James Rorimer, future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the inspiration for Matt Damon’s character, James Granger. A curator at the Cloisters Museum in civilian life, Rorimer landed with French troops at Utah Beach on August 3, 1944, two months after D-Day. He immediately began surveying the damage to churches and other historic buildings nearby, documenting in painstaking detail the destruction inflicted by German and Allied bombing.

While maintaining contact with superior officers, Rorimer mostly worked alone in Normandy, without a vehicle or assistant. Determined to inspect damage at the grandiose medieval abbey of Mont Saint Michel, he hitched rides on Allied military vehicles and with French civilians. When those vehicles veered from his destination, he walked. Alone. One Air Corps MP Captain suspected he was a German spy, incredulous that a U.S. officer would travel in Normandy without his own transportation. Rorimer and his MFAA colleagues used cunning and imagination to make up for the dearth in personnel, equipment and preservation supplies. Fogg Museum preservationist George Stout, the inspiration for Clooney’s character, managed to secure a beat up German Army Volkswagen without a roof, and New York architect Bancel LaFarge, after weeks of hitchhiking and walking, procured a small British car to navigate country roads.

The terminology “Monuments Men” itself elides a rich part of this history: the role played by remarkable women. One was Rose Valland, a French museum official who inspired the Claire Simone character in the film, played by Cate Blanchett. In the film, Simone shows Granger the extent of Nazi looting by taking him to Paris warehouses filled with everyday objects plundered from Jewish homes, much as Valland did with Rorimer in December 1944. Romantic tension between the film characters is pure Hollywood invention, but in real life the two were a powerful team, as Rorimer used Valland’s records of Nazi art looting to track down the treasures of France stashed in Neuschwanstein castle and other repositories. Valland later became a Captain in the French Army and from 1945 to 1953 worked in Germany to help return the collected art to countries of origin. A recipient of the Resistance Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, she remains one of the most decorated women in French history.
Rose Valland at the Jeu de Paume

Edsel’s non-profit foundation includes Valland and several other women on its list of more than three hundred “Monuments Men” from thirteen countries. Among them was Captain Edith Standen, a Canadian-born art expert who became a U.S. citizen in 1942, joined the Women’s Army Corps, and in June 1945 became director of the Wiesbaden central collecting point. Ardelia Hall was a cultural officer at the U.S. State Department from 1946 to 1962 and worked tirelessly to promote restitution of looted art to rightful—mostly Jewish—owners.

The Monuments Men should be seen as an entertaining entry to a far more complicated history embedded in the Holocaust. The recent international controversy surrounding the revelation of Cornelius Gurlitt’s art hoard in Munich shows how difficult the work of restitution remains. In the chaotic postwar years, restitution was defined in national terms, to countries of origin that would determine rightful owners, despite the fundamentally international nature of the art market. Over the past seventy years, works seized from Jewish collections or sold under duress during the Nazi era have been resold across territories with varying statutes of limitation for illicit trade, even within the United States. For this reason, the central mission of many Monuments Men and women, restitution to rightful owners, is not yet accomplished.

09 June 2014

Belated open letter to the "New Republic"

Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of The New Republic, Source: Brandeis University
by Marc J. Masurovsky

Why did it take so long for the "New Republic" to write about cultural plunder and restitution of looted art? Is it really because of the incongruous convergence of the so-called “Gurlitt Affair” and the global release of that “trashy and supercilious film”—the Monuments Men? Or put differently, why the silence for so many decades despite the fact that “restitution [is] as much as the next child of the dispossessed”? There are probably no easy answers to those questions and perhaps they are best left alone. Still...

“The obsession with restitution” is an obsession with justice, as exemplified by restitution of lost cultural assets, those items, those objects, those artifacts, regardless of value or museum worthiness, those parts of ourselves that serve as our extensions and our means of expressing non-verbally our deepest sentiments, longings, loves, and aspirations.

It is not just about Fragonard, Bellini, Tintoretto, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Leonardo and countless other “masters”. It is not just about the finest silver and the finest gold and the finest stones set in the finest settings. It is not about those rarest of rarest of books and incunabulae, or textiles carefully woven with the most precious fabrics for that most precious person. Actually, we are talking about something that makes you and I and our friends, our children, our relatives, and those around us whom we do not know, it is what makes us human, it is about culture. And culture is what Hitler and his henchmen and collaborators across Europe sought to uproot wherever it was deemed to be “Jewish” and “degenerate”, in order to substitute something clean, tasteful, that was Judenrein.

A crime against humanity.

In order to proceed with the uprooting of culture and the mass of objects encapsulated under that moniker, Hitler’s henchmen and collaborators across Europe committed an act of genocide. That makes Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius Gurlitt’s father, an accessory to genocide, together with all other art dealers, collectors, museum officials and curators, art historians, auctioneers, and appraisers who found opportunity in State-sanctioned mass displacement of property that accompanied the slaughter of millions.

The dispossessed lost their homes, their property, their sense of self, the beauty around them was extinguished and they were only left to wonder why such horrors had befallen them.

There exists a significant emotional and spiritual linkage between people of all ages and backgrounds and ethnicities and creeds and the objects that surround them, that populate their lives. It could be a candelabra, it could be an incense burner, it could also be a small drawing by Edgar Degas, or a satirical piece by Georg Grosz or even a surrealistic painting by Felix Nussbaum, or a ditty scrawled on a napkin. It doesn’t matter what it is; it is the meaning that it embodies which is precious to us all. The crime consists in rending that object from our bosom, as if part of our soul had been ripped to shreds, and for what? For being Jewish, for being “different”? for being “unacceptable”? “undesirable”?

We certainly do not place objects above people. We place objects in the constellation of people, much like satellites circling planets. And when the satellite leaves its orbit, all hell breaks loose and we are released into the wilderness of space, aimless.

Fighting for restitution does not weaken our loss, it acts as a vital reminder of the world that was consumed in flames and gas, not completely, but almost. Obtaining restitution is but a small step to establish the cardinal principle that justice does exist and that with resolve and perseverance and belief in ourselves and in our kin and in higher principles, even if the outcome is hopeless much like it was for those young fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, my personal heroes, we can assert the value of justice and reaffirm our right to exist while honoring the loss of those who came before us and cannot be with us due to a crime against humanity.

For myself, I am the single child of two artists, two artists who sought out the famed “School of Paris” and bought a one-way boat ticket from New York to experience it all in the City of Lights, poor as could be, rich as could be. Miserable but filled with the soul and spirit of what they embraced and lived—art and culture. Breathing it, in and out, every day, as pure as the driven snow, which drove them into the ground, because, as you know, the art market is unforgiving, cruel, and indifferent to human plight. By the way, Lincoln Kirstein and his ilk are part and parcel of that market, that cultured elite which enjoys driving artists into the ground in the name of Kultur. I make no apologies for being so fiendish and cynical but that is the cold reality that artists must endure. By extension, the “Monuments Men” would not have given the time of day to most artists incinerated in the Nazi apocalypse. Sad but true.

Where are we now? Most people think that the excitement today is about money. It always has been. People are what they are. A cheap headline always includes money. Journalists do not write about a restituted collection if the word “million” is not included in the header. That state of affairs comes from ignorance and intellectual opportunism, the flip side of “pornographic journalism.” It is no different today than it was in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s. Yes, it is true that high-priced restitutions are good for the art market. There is a certain twisted logic in the way that the press, comforted by today’s elites, creates a perverse and distorted linkage between the restitution of looted art and the staggering values derived from those objects that have been returned to rightful owners. As if the only objects that were stolen by the Nazis were of museum quality and affordable only to the 1 per cent. Let's not forget that the 99 per cent are ignored by the press and whose clamor for justice is never heeded? Why then claimants to give up and simply “remember"?

Once again, it is not just about Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele. It is about those thousands of artistic minds and creative spirits from dozens of nations who produced all kinds of works, in all sorts of media, as extensions of their spirit. It is up to us to appreciate them or ignore them, but their sum constitutes our cultural and artistic patrimony, like it or not. As to your quip about rescuing a piece by Damien Hirst, he occupies a space in our culture, even if we do agree here that his work might not be worth saving. But, if I did not save Hirst, why should anyone save my parents’ works? Who am I to judge what is worth saving and what is worth abandoning to a hellfire? Such flawed reasoning puts us square in the lap of the Monuments Men whose mission was to rescue the “cultural treasures” of Western civilization, worshipped in countless museum studies programs, institutes of art, and revered temples of culture, at the expense of the lesser-known, the lower tiers of cultural and artistic output. Cost-benefit analysis correlates with the rarefied air of high-priced recoveries and restitution of stolen art.

Miscellaneous thoughts about cultural plunder

Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France
Source: Wikipedia
There is a prevalent feeling that we trivialize the Holocaust if we emphasize material losses. We are told repeatedly that the Holocaust was not about property, it was about people and by seeking restitution of looted assets, whatever they may be, we end up reducing the Holocaust to a great train robbery. Well, my reply to this criticism is very simple. The Holocaust is far more than a wholesale continent-wide massacre of six million men, women, and children. It was an undertaking whose aim was to erase their culture, their religion, their faith, their aspirations, their ideas, their wants, their ambitions, their intellectual, economic, political, spiritual, social, presence on earth. The eradication of these six million men, women, and children led to a traumatic impoverishment of human society on a scale never seen before. To fully grasp the significance of the Holocaust, it was a gargantuan enterprise to remove their ideas, their visions, their opinions, their accomplishments, their friendships, their loves, their legacies, from human society. Most importantly, one of the prime features of the Holocaust was the vast and complex transfer of the property of these six million men, women, and children to non-Jewish Aryan possessors who found themselves enriched sometimes overnight by the illegal misappropriation of the personal, corporate, and intellectual assets of an entire group of individuals in 19 nations across Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Every object is but one infinitely small grain of sand on that beach of death called genocide on which we walk every day.

04 May 2014

RE: H.R. 4292 Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act

April 23, 2014


All U.S. Representatives
U.S. House of Representatives

RE: H.R. 4292 Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act

Dear Representative:

Please be advised that the Ciric Law Firm, PLLC represents Ori Z. Soltes, Director and Co-Founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (“HARP”), in connection with the matter described below. HARP is a not-for-profit organization that disseminates information to the public and to claimants about cultural property stolen, confiscated, and misappropriated during the Nazi-era. Professor Ori Z. Soltes teaches at Georgetown University across a range of disciplines, from theology and art history to philosophy and political history. He is the former Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC, where he curated exhibitions on a variety of subjects such as archaeology, ethnography, and contemporary art. Professor Soltes has taught, lectured, and curated exhibitions across the U.S. and internationally. He is the author of over 230 articles, exhibition catalogues, essays, and books on a range of topics. Recent books include: The Ashen Rainbow: The Arts and the Holocaust; Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source; Searching for Oneness: Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and Untangling the Web: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Why the Middle East is a Mess and Always Has Been. Professor Soltes was also involved in providing the historical research and background information in regard to Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” case, as well as the restitution of an Odalisque painting by Henri Matisse to the Rosenberg family.

In March 2012, my client and many others wrote to members of the U.S. House of Representatives calling for the immediate withdrawal of S. 2212/H.R. 4086, the “Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act.” At that time, my client argued that the bill would bar valid claims by true owners of looted artwork in U.S. courts, thereby eliminating one of the rare remaining deterrents to the illicit trafficking of looted artworks.

We write to you again with the same adamant plea – that H.R. 4292 not be permitted to go forward. Although it is the same plea, the circumstances under which we write could not be more different. Given the unbelievable discovery in Munich, Germany of the Gurlitt horde, the mere proposal of immunity from seizure is mystifying. If ever there were a time to plainly see the destructiveness of such a bill, it would be now, where there is concrete proof that looted art continues to make its way into the market. The effect of passing H.R. 4292 would be nothing short of disastrous for Holocaust survivors who may have looted art claims, as well as source countries with claims for the return of looted antiquities and other artworks.

Today, if a foreign institution provides, in the context of a cultural exchange program, such as a temporary exhibit, artworks to U.S. institutions, this foreign institution is subject to two statutes:

- Under the Immunity from Seizure Act (IFSA), 22 U.S.C. § 2459, foreign lenders are already shielded from seizure of those objects while they are present on U.S. soil. To enjoy this protection, foreign institutions must apply for the immunity order with the U.S. Department of State, which has complete discretion in issuing these orders.

- Under the Federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(3), a government-related foreign institution which sends artworks to the U.S. may, under limited circumstances, be sued in the U.S. for either the return of the looted artworks or for related damages, when the looted artworks are the ones sent to U.S. for the exchange (Malewicz v. City of Amsterdam, 362 F.Supp.2d 298 (D.D.C.2005)) or if the looted artworks are still in Europe, but the institution has a commercial presence in the U.S. via other related activities (Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677 (2004)). This liability extends even though the artworks are protected from seizure under IFSA. Therefore, a government-related foreign entity is liable before U.S. courts if sufficient commercial activity is found in the U.S., whether directly or indirectly related to the looted objects being present in the U.S.

The following is a breakdown of the significant flaws in H.R. 4292.

1. The bill’s so-called “Nazi” exception is far too narrowly construed.

The bill only focuses the exception on "Nazi," but not on "Axis" related activities. Because the bill only covers governments occupied by Nazi Germany or governments that were allies of Nazi Germany, it eliminates claims involving objects from countries occupied, annexed or controlled by non-Nazi Axis powers, i.e. Japan and Italy. Therefore, all claims involving objects from the following countries would be excluded: British Somaliland, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Albania, several regions of Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia-Slovenia, Korea, Formosa (Taiwan), South Karafuto, Manchuria, several regions of mainland China, Portuguese Timor, Hong Kong, French Indochina, Thailand, Burma, British New Guinea, the Philippines, Malaya, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, several regions of Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei, British North Borneo, Nauru, the Dutch East Indies, Guam, Imphal, Wake Island, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Christmas Island, Attu, and Kiska. Such an effect cannot be considered acceptable.

The narrow focus of the bill to a Nazi-only exception mischaracterizes the Holocaust. By adopting this bill, Congress will crystallize the Holocaust as an event specifically Jewish or specifically European, enabling it and the public to ignore the larger human issue of Holocaust-like events which have taken place since World War II and the associated large-scale cultural plunder associated with those events. If Congress passes H.R. 4292, it recognizes that the Holocaust was nothing but a simple historical aberration, and enables us to no longer consider the consequences, costs, or risks of persecution, and the associated cultural plunder in other situations. In essence, Congress’ message in passing H.R. 4292 is as follows: Nazi looting is not okay, but cultural looting and plundering in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Cyprus, is okay, protected, and shielded by the will of the U.S. Government.

In addition, the Nazi-era carve-out is restricted to State collections, and would therefore allow the illicit exchange of Nazi-looted artworks held by non-American private entities, or even municipalities.

Additionally, the same exception defines Nazi-plundered art far too narrowly. The so-called “Nazi” exception in the bill would exclude all objects obtained from forced sales or other forms of looting or plunder not executed directly by Nazi forces. It would also exclude all objects obtained from forced sales or other transactions apparently legal in form or purporting to be voluntarily effected, when in fact the intent was to deprive Holocaust victims of their property, rights and interests in artworks. Again, such an effect from this bill cannot be considered acceptable given that most of the recent looted art cases involve indirect acts of looting and dispossession. In essence, had such a bill been in place during the Gurlitt exhibit in New York in 1956, the art would have been immune from seizure.

2. The integrity of the FSIA would be substantially compromised.

H.R. 4292 removes the jurisdictional ground of commercial activity originating in the Federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(3). Therefore, a U.S. judge may conclude that the Louvre Museum, for example, will be shielded from any liability for any artwork currently held, either in the U.S. or in France, by any claimant, whether the looted artwork is related directly or indirectly to the initial Exhibit. This would serve as a clear sign to the world that U.S. institutions may freely accept looted artwork into their exhibits, and promote the illicit exchange of looted artwork plaguing the U.S. market.

H.R. 4292 provides that the government-related foreign institution would be completely shielded from any liability, whether the looted artwork is related directly or indirectly to the cultural exchange. Both bills accomplish this by declaring that the cultural exchange in the U.S. does not constitute commercial activity (“any activity in the United States of such foreign state or any carrier associated with the temporary exhibit or display of such work shall not be considered to be commercial activity for purposes of subsection (a)(3)”).

The following example shows that this risk is very concrete: On June 20, 2012, the City of Paris merged all its municipal museums into a public corporation, called “Paris Musées.” This public corporation also owns the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which currently holds 10 paintings looted by the Nazis and flagged as “MNR” (“Musées Nationaux Récupération”). MNR artwork is already proven to be looted property. Now Assume the Musée des Beaux-Arts lends one of the MNR paintings to a U.S. institution. Under H.R. 4292, not only would any U.S.-based heirs to the painting be unable to sue for either the return of the painting or for related damages, but because the same legal entity which would loan this painting to a U.S. institution also owns other MNR artworks, the partial loan would shield the ENTIRE holdings of the Public Corporation from any suit in the U.S. Therefore, H.R. 4292 would bar claimants to file any suit in the United States against the city of Paris for the return of any MNR artwork or for any related damages under Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677 (2004).

This case would be similar to potential claims by either source countries, such as Turkey, Cambodia, or India, or individuals in the United States against third parties outside of the United States sending looted artworks in the United States. The recent Kapoor case, involving an American antiquities dealer who sold looted ancient Indian art to museums and private collectors around the world, illustrates that such a scenario, where the entire holdings of a non-US institution would be shielded by the loan of one object, will be very likely in the future.

Therefore, the vast majority of European cultural institutions and governments will be shielded from ANY suit in the U.S. for any looted artwork not falling in the narrow Nazi-era carve-out, whether or not the looted artwork is directly or indirectly related to a commercial presence in the U.S. of the European cultural institution. Therefore, source countries, or individual claimants outside of the narrow Nazi-era carve-out will no longer be able to sue in the U.S. European museums, which are vastly government-owned, for any claims related to artworks subject to pillage, plunder or illegal excavation.

In the end, the only effect of H.R. 4292 will be to bar potential and valid claims by the true owners of looted artworks in U.S. courts, and will eliminate one of the rare remaining deterrents to the illicit trafficking of looted artworks, as well as encouraging transactions involving such looted objects.

3. The impact of H.R. 4292 on the U.S. cultural policy would be disastrous.

The claim by museum representatives that the bill would promote the open and free exchange of cultural works among nations, thus enhancing diplomatic relations, is patently untrue. The bill would promote the open and free exchange of looted art. It would eliminate the incentive for museums and galleries to engage in minimum due diligence and provenance research. It would remove the main tool this country has for helping victims of the worst crimes of the 20th century.

Beyond the Nazi exception and its exceedingly narrow definition of Nazi-plundered art, this bill will result in making the coming of all other kinds of plundered art into the United States immune not just from seizure, but from being recognized as plundered. In fact, in its most disastrous effect, the bill will allow every archaeological artifact originally looted, as well as the foreign government entity attempting to profit from its exhibition in the United States, to be completely protected from any damage or suit.

4. The impact of H.R. 4292 on public perception of cultural institutions would be disastrous.

In being encouraged to preserve their holdings of looted artworks, U.S. and European museums, as well as foreign European governments, continue to aid and abet the absence of justice for war crimes committed by the Nazi government and their allies, by constantly refusing to confront this past, by denying any measure of resolution or restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs, and by refusing to provide for reasonable restitution procedures.

My client is also appalled at the missteps in public policy regarding restitution of artworks on the part of lawmakers, as well as museums. I am sure you remember the promises made by the museum directors in the House of Representatives 1998 Hearings, under then Chair of Banking Committee Jim Leach, to perform do in-depth research of provenance for their entire collections.

My client is also surprised that, rather than delivering on those empty promises, museums are lobbying you and are continuing the tragedy of the Holocaust, by asking you to ensure that theft from owners in times of war and dictatorship and the greed resulting from its commercial exploitation would be officially protected from justice.

How can Congress, which recognized the Holocaust and its effect by passing the Holocaust Victims Redress Act in 1998, claiming the right to protect Holocaust victims, then turn and attempt to redefine, restrict and change the definition of theft and victims, for the simple purpose of protecting the largest grand theft of art ever perpetrated on humanity?

You must abandon H.R. 4292, because its effects would be nothing short of disastrous for Holocaust survivors who may have looted art claims, as well as source countries with claims for the return of looted antiquities and other artworks.

For the above-mentioned reasons, my client urges you to withdraw H.R. 4292 from any further consideration, review, amendments or vote.

Thank you for your leadership on this important issue and for your support. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me. On behalf of my client, I thank you for your consideration.

Truly yours,

Pierre Ciric
Member of the Firm

Cc: Ori Z. Soltes
Director, Holocaust Art Restitution Project, Inc.

29 January 2014

Tour d’horizon rapide de l’état des restitutions en Europe et aux Amériques

Stuart Eizenstat
Source: Wikipedia
Canada :

Une commission d’études vient d’être mise en place, dirigée par Janet Brooke, pour recenser les problèmes de provenance dans six musées canadiens. L’étude en question durera deux ans.

Etats-Unis :

L’idée d’une commission sur les spoliations de biens culturels et artistiques n’a pas fait long feu. Lancée en 2009 par l’Ambassadeur Stuart Eizenstat à la conférence internationale de Prague sur les biens spoliés, le concept d’une commission américaine aura produit une demi-douzaine de réunions au Département d’Etat et c’est tout. Ces discussions n’ont produit que deux résultats:

1/ le gouvernement américain mène une action passive vis-à-vis des restitutions de biens culturels et se contente de ressasser son adhésion aux principes de Washington ;

2/ la préoccupation majeure tant pour les musées que pour les requérants et les chercheurs, c’est la qualité de la recherche sur la spoliation du bien revendiqué. Cette recherche doit être motivée par un seul souci : celui de dire toute la vérité, et de s’attacher dans la mesure du possible à la véracité des faits qui décrivent l’historique de l’objet revendiqué quel qu’en soit les conséquences pour le requérant et le possesseur actuel. Si on applique cette norme à l’ensemble des objets au passé douteux, on vivrait dans un autre monde, mais hélas !

Même si l’Ambassadeur Stuart Eizenstat s’obstine à créer une commission sur les biens culturels spoliés, cela ne changera rien pour les requérants, les musées et les chercheurs le savent et demandent au gouvernement américain de subventionner un effort de recherches dans les musées américains y compris les fonds du Smithsonian et de ses 18 musées. Entretemps, les associations de directeurs de musées tentent de faire passer un projet de loi visant à immuniser tout objet d’art venant de l’étranger aux fins d’être exposé dans un musée américain. Le but de cette loi est de réduire à néant la seule juridiction au monde où un propriétaire lésé de son bien peut introduire une demande de restitution auprès d’un tribunal américain. La première tentative a échoué en décembre dernier. On attend la nouvelle version de ce projet de loi avec impatience pour le faire échouer une seconde fois.

Irlande :

Le Hunt Museum se comporte très mal car il a nié que son fondateur, M. Hunt, avait acquis des objets spoliés en Allemagne nazie et en Autriche post-Anschluss. Ce sont des chercheurs britanniques travaillant pour les musées britanniques qui ont découvert le pot aux roses. On attend donc que la recherche soit relancée.

Royaume-Uni :

Une commission de spoliation continue ses travaux, les collections des musées de la grande île, excepté ceux d’Irlande du Nord, ont été examinés il y a plus de dix ans et les résultats de ces enquêtes sont disponibles sur l’Internet. L’exemple britannique devrait servir de modèle par sa rigueur et surtout par sa démarche pédagogique qui consiste à poser des questions sur les lacunes dans l’historique de certains objets, une approche raisonnable qui permet au lecteur de la provenance de l’objet en question de participer à un dialogue sur son historique quitte à contribuer des éléments nouveaux s’il y a lieu. Néanmoins, de grandes zones d’ombres perdurent dans maintes collections britanniques vu les liens intimes entre les marchands du Royaume Uni et leurs collègues et les habitudes anti-démocratiques de certains milieux qui n’hésiteraient sans doute pas à acquérir des objets sans se poser trop de questions. Mais là aussi, cette tendance est universelle.

Espagne :

Depuis la fin de la Guerre civile, l’Espagne se distingue par son double rôle de plaque tournante entre l’Europe et l’Amérique latine d’une part, et de recycleuse des fruits du pillage franquiste et des alliés de Franco au nord des Pyrénées et sur l’autre rive de la Mare Nostrum. Dernièrement, le gouvernement espagnol a soutenu le refus du Musée Thyssen-Bornemisza de rendre un tableau de Pissarro à l’héritier de la famille Cassirer. Malheureusement pour l’Espagne, une instance supérieure en Californie a décidé que le requérant pouvait instruire sa plainte devant un tribunal américain ce qui bouleversa la donne et obligea le musée Thyssen de restituer le tableau. Une énorme victoire facilitée par l’avocat du Seattle Art Museum, M. Dunwoody.

Italie :

L’épouvantail de l’Europe, l’ingrat des restitutions qui adore récupérer ses antiquités mais refuse strictement, presque par principe, de rendre quoique ce soit même à des victimes de la Shoah. Il faudra exercer de réelles pressions sur l’Italie pour qu’elle commence à se comporter comme un pays civilisé qui respecte le patrimoine des autres.

Belgique :

Depuis la semaine dernière, la Belgique se rebiffe. Une série d’articles dans la presse flamande signés par Geert Sels proclame tout haut la présence de tableaux « nazis » dans les musées belges ainsi que des tableaux pillés en Belgique dans des musées américains, allemands, et hollandais. De quoi raviver la sauce spoliatrice dans un pays qui, jusqu’à présent, restait totalement indifférent à la question des restitutions et était connu pour avoir fait obstacle à nombre de demandes de la part de victimes de spoliations en France occupée facilités par des marchands et des collectionneurs d’origine belge . Eh oui ! la navette franco-belge est tristement connue de ceux qui mènent des enquêtes sur les réseaux de recyclage d’objets spoliés tant en Belgique qu’en France et en Hollande. Un trafic nord-sud qui continue d’ailleurs, grâce à l’Union européenne.

Hollande :

Sa commission de restitution continue de fonctionner, quoique les taux de restitution s’amoindrissent d’année en année. La Hollande n’est pas en manque d’objets spoliés, elle perd de plus en plus sa volonté de rupture avec le passé en raison des pressions énormes que font peser les musées néerlandais sur la commission.

Les pays scandinaves demeurent une zone inexplorée. Certains dossiers de restitution ont fait la une de la presse internationale récemment concernant une Odalisque de Matisse volée au marchand Paul Rosenberg et qui se trouve actuellement dans une collection à Oslo. La Norvège fut un des pays les plus efficaces dans l’après-guerre et rendit une justice exemplaire et brutale contre ses concitoyens qui préfèrent Quisling à la démocratie. Sur le plan des spoliations il s’agit plutôt d’ignorance et de déni face aux pertes encourues par le musée national d’Oslo dont la requête fut déboutée de manière sèche par vos «héros, les Monuments Men. A l’évidence, un pays aussi éloigné qui ne produisit pas d’artistes comme Veronese et Boucher ne comptait pas beaucoup pour nos spécialistes culturels sortant du Met ou du Musée des beaux-arts de Boston. Quel dommage !

Le Danemark se réveille grâce à un chercheur danois qui remet en cause la présence de tableaux soi-disant dégénérés dans des collections d’Etat à Copenhague. Affaire à suivre. En effet, les maisons de vente de la capitale danoise méritent un coup d’œil plus curieux sur leurs activités pendant la période d’occupation allemande. Souvenez-vous que le frère du Dr. Best qui sévit à Paris pendant la guerre est le chef de la force d’occupation allemande au Danemark.

Allemagne :

La commission Limbach patauge dans sa propre sauce bureaucratique et ne fait pratiquement rien. De temps en temps, elle se distingue par un verdict positif, voir l’affaire des 3000 affiches de M. Sachs, tantôt elle flanche et déboute les requérants pour des raisons un peu obscures… Entretemps, l’Affaire Gurlitt domine les médias et occupe une place de plus en plus importante dans le geist du public allemand. Face à une chancellerie hésitante qui abuse du statut fédéral de l’Allemagne pour renvoyer la balle à la Bavière sur l’issue d’une affaire qui va bien au-delà d’une simple question d’escroquerie ou de négligence eu égard au fisc allemand, mais remet en question le flou historique entretenu par les universitaires et les fonctionnaires allemands sur le rôle des marchands, des directeurs et des conservateurs de musée dans la spoliation de ses propres citoyens et du recyclage à outrance de leurs biens d’un musée à l’autre et d’une galerie à l’autre, en toute impunité. La guerre froide et le laxisme prononcé des Monuments Men avec leurs homologues allemands n’ont fait que perpétuer la fausse image d’un milieu artistique et muséal qui fut obligé de faire plaisir aux dignitaires nazis mais qui, dans le fond, n’avait d’autres sentiments que de sauvegarder le patrimoine du pays. Un raisonnement que l’on retrouve outre-Rhin pour se disculper de toute menée collaboratrice pendant la guerre. C’est dommage mais c’est comme ça. La question qui se pose maintenant : jusqu’où ira la commission Gurlitt dans ses travaux de recherches ? osera-t-elle aller jusqu’au bout ? la France l’aidera-telle jusqu’au bout vu que Hildebrand Gurlitt a fait la plupart de ses emplettes sur le marché de Paris sous la botte nazie. Rien ne sert de faire l’autruche… Donc, l’Allemagne a besoin d’aide alors que M. Lauder tonitrue aujourd’hui et réclame la création d’une commission internationale pour faire la lumière sur les collections allemandes. Espérons qu’il ne réclame pas la même chose pour la France. Quelle horreur !

Autriche :

Le seul pays qui ait passé une loi sur la restitution, et ce après avoir survécu le traumatisme qu’elle a subi lors de la saisie de deux tableaux d’Egon Schiele au musée d’art moderne de New York en janvier 1998. Il aura donc fallu l’ingérence des forces de police dans le temple de l’art moderne à New York pour provoquer un débat sur la restitution en Autriche. Du jamais vu puisque c’est le seul cas d’une saisie aussi spectaculaire qui ne s’est pas répétée. Entretemps, suite au passage de la loi sur les restitutions, l’Autriche a rendu plus de 20000 biens, y compris des livres et des objets d’art décoratif. Mais c’est le principe qui compte. Autrement dit l’Autriche n’est plus réactive comme le sont, par contre, le reste des pays d’Europe. Ils ne feront rien sans se faire agresser par la plainte d’un requérant ou une question posée par un parlementaire aguerri.

Suisse :

Un peu plus civilisée que l’Italie, la Suisse ne rend que très peu de choses spoliées. Sa neutralité lui a bien servi, le fait que le droit cantonal impose sa volonté presque médiévale sur l’Etat fédéral en dit long sur la capacité de la Suisse à jouer un rôle positif en matière de restitutions. Ceci dit, il faut reconnaître l’activisme de certains membres du barreau helvétique et de certains universitaires soutenus par des fonctionnaires disposés à faire le bien lorsqu’il s’agit de redresser les torts provoqués par un Etat qui se complaisait dans une neutralité factice et qui se cache derrière un pouvoir judiciaire qui ne reconnaît aucunement le caractère spécial d’un vol commis dans le cadre d’une entreprise génocidaire. Une situation pas vraiment particulière à la Suisse, car on retrouve un même état d’esprit tant en France que dans d’autres pays européens et même en Amérique, Nord et Sud confondus.

Ex-Yougoslavie :

Le démantèlement de la Yougoslavie au lendemain de la disparition de Tito, la guerre civile déclenchée par les revanchards nationalistes serbes, n’ont fait que compliquer une situation déjà ténue concernant les pillages des communautés juives et autres aux mains des Ustashis, des Bosniaques pronazis et autres collaborateurs des Allemands. Ceci dit, on note un mouvement de conciliation et de coopération en Croatie, en Slovénie, en Macédoine et en Bosnie, pour documenter et répertorier les pertes subies par les communautés juives et autres groupes persécutés. Les Croates, en particulier, font montre d’un renouveau d’enthousiasme à rendre accessible toute la documentation sur la période oustashi et les conséquences de leurs crimes dans l’après-guerre. Peut-être que là aussi, la communauté internationale pourrait relever le défi et s’asseoir à table avec nos amis croates pour voir comment faire avancer le calendrier des restitutions. Pour infos, l’Italie est la cible privilégiée de la Croatie.

Roumanie :

Mis à part la création de mémoriaux et de centres d’études sur la Shoah, la Roumanie en est au point mort quand il s’agit de restituer à une communauté juive qui s’est exilé depuis longtemps. Les régimes communistes et post-communistes se ressemblent sur cette question. La question ne se pose même pas dans un pays où les rangs du parti communiste roumain se sont emplis d’anciens légionnaires antisémites et ultra-nationalistes. Plus on s’oppose, plus on se ressemble.

Bulgarie :

Le roi Boris III aura empêché la communauté juive d’être décimée dans les camps d’extermination nazis. Mais il ne s’est pas gêné pour les spolier en bonne et due forme. La Bulgarie fasciste a créé un Commissariat général aux questions juives tout comme le CGQJ de Vichy, de véritables émules. Et comme par hasard, au lieu de crucifier ses dirigeants dans l’après-guerre, ils ont trouvé leurs meilleurs témoins à charge parmi ceux-là même que le commissariat avait spolié. Vous savez, ça n’avait rien à voir avec vous. On a fait notre boulot, c’est tout. Eh oui ! C’est toujours la faute à quelqu’un d’autre.

Hongrie :

La tournure actuelle des événements en Hongrie avec un gouvernement plutôt séduite par l’irrédentisme de feu l’Amiral Horthy et l’antisémitisme vulgaire de Salaszy. Le grand dossier du jour, l’affaire Herzog, perturbe la Hongrie, tant mieux. Mais qu’en est-il des milliers d’objets qui n’ont toujours pas été restitués ?

Russie :
C’est l’abîme lorsqu’il s’agit de faire le clair-obscur sur ce que contiennent les réserves de feu l’Union soviétique. Des anecdotes récentes portent à croire que de nombreux objets rapatriés par l’Armée rouge continuent de languir dans leurs caisses originales stockées dans des sous-sols de musées, des monastères, des officines à travers le pays. Ici comme ailleurs, on se doit de mettre un terme à ce problème qui nous hante depuis des décennies : que faut-il faire au juste pour battre en brèche la forteresse russe sur ses trophées, qui appartiennent à des particuliers et des organismes éparses qui se trouvaient par malheur sur le chemin de l’armée rouge? 

On compte parmi ces objets un nombre inconnu de collections pillées en Europe occidentale et stockés par les Allemands dans les provinces orientales du Reich, en Silésie et dans des châteaux en Moravie, en Prusse orientale et d’autres contrées exotiques… là aussi, la France a raté le coche et s’est contenté de ne plus rien dire quant à la destinée des collections qu’elle savait se trouver en Allemagne de l’Est, en Pologne, en Tchécoslovaquie, et en Union soviétique. Quel dommage !

Ukraine :

Nous sommes en proie ici au syndrome de l’ex-Union soviétique, des trophées de guerre que l’on ne rend pas. Sauf qu’un musée de Kiev qui se spécialise dans les œuvres d’art provenant de l’ouest de l’Odra s’intéresse à plusieurs tableaux pillés par les Allemands qui ont fait surface à Londres et à New York. Pourront-ils les récupérer vu l’état actuel du pays ? En tout cas, les autorités britanniques et américaines ont été contactées.

Finlande :

Rien à déclarer sinon qu’une petite équipe de chercheurs finlandais a retrouvé des renseignements sur une famille qui s’était fait spolier en France et dont on avait perdu la trace. Leurs recherches ont permis d’identifier les ayants-droits ce qui devrait permettre au gouvernement français de faire le nécessaire pour faciliter la restitution de leurs objets, de la porcelaine de très haute qualité.