For stolen art, the first steps home

Some museums are beginning to make an attempt at restitution for those whose private collections were ravaged by the Nazis.

April 16, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff

Think how much safer the 20th century might have been if only Adolph Hitler had been accepted into a Viennese art institute.

As it was, millions of innocent people were murdered. Less well- known, however, is that Der Fuehrer played out his unrealized artistic expression by engineering one of the most extensive art heists in history.

By some estimates, between the years 1933 and 1945, the Nazis stole or extorted more than 600,000 pieces of art, including paintings by Rembrandt, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. Many of the works were looted from museums in occupied countries, but much of it was also confiscated from Jewish art dealers and collectors, many of whom perished in the Holocaust.

After World War II, hundreds of thousands of pieces found their way into museums and collections throughout the world, including the United States.

This month, 55 years after the war's end, some American art museums are taking the first steps toward possibly reuniting those stolen goods with their rightful owners, or at least with their heirs. In recent weeks, at least four major museums -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago -- began posting on their Web sites a list of paintings whose ownership during the Nazi years was in doubt. The intention is that people with information about the paintings or actual claims will come forward.

While some Jewish groups say they are encouraged by the development, they also say it has come only after much pressure and a general reluctance on the part of museums.

"Until the Swiss Bank scandal, frankly, museums were indifferent on this issue," says Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York. "They had their own version of 'Don't ask, don't tell.' " Even now, Steinberg insists, museums are showing varied levels of commitment toward clearing up ownership and returning works of art.

Still, the action of the American museums and their European counterparts represents a striking departure from the complete absence of activity during the decades after the war. Then, the restitution of art was hardly on anyone's agenda, including the Jewish survivors of Hitler's Europe.

"When people focused on the Holocaust, they focused on refugee location, on reuniting families, on all the important humanitarian business and art just didn't seem that important," said Constance Lowenthal, director of the Commission for Art Recovery, an arm of the World Jewish Congress. "Holocaust survivors wanted to move on with their lives as best they could and not dwell on the unspeakable experiences they had lived through."

While the Western Allies recovered much of the looted art and sent it back to the countries of origin, those nations, crippled by the war, didn't place a high priority on returning the work to individuals. "Many of those people were either abroad or in heaven," Lowenthal said. Much of the work eventually entered the art market.

As for the Soviets, they generally shipped everything they found back to Russia.

Not much changed for decades, except the deaths of Holocaust survivors -- those with direct knowledge of their ownership of artwork -- and the further loss of documentation. But a major breakthrough occurred in the early 1990s when two Soviet art historians published evidence about the looted Nazi art in Russia. Their account was followed soon after by "The Rape of Europa," a book by a Washington author, Lynn Nicholas, which detailed the history of the Nazis' plunder.

Those books and others drew the attention of the Western media and Jewish organizations, which began to wonder if any of the plundered art was in European and American museums. Two years ago, the Association of Art Museum Directors pledged that its 170 member institutions would investigate whether any of their holdings had been plundered during the war.

But nothing much happened until earlier this year, when British art museums began publishing on the Internet a list of artwork with questionable ownership during the crucial years. At the same time, some American newspapers, working with the World Jewish Congress, identified a dozen paintings in American museums whose ownership was sketchy during the war years or had passed through the hands of art dealers known to have associated with the Nazis. One of those identified was a Rembrandt in the Los Angeles County Museum.

Events moved quickly after that. The four American museums have begun publishing their own lists, and more such lists are expected.

"Museums are going to be very aggressive," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. "They're doing due diligence. We have an open competition to see who can get online the fastest."

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