Printer Friendly

Museums Acting Quickly To Return Nazi Loot.

When the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh was notified that a painting in its collection had been identified by researchers as having been stolen by the Nazis in 1940, it found itself in the middle of an international controversy.

More than 50 years after the end of World War II, the whereabouts of countless works of art looted or lost by the Nazis has become a major headline story -- as well as a clerical nightmare.

In addition to the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum has recently been forced to deal with this issue. The way both institutions have responded has set the example for other museums.

In the case of the North Carolina Museum of Art, the museum was notified, by the World Jewish Congress in March, 1999 that researchers had identified a painting in the museum's collection, "Madonna and Child in a Landscape" by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, as having been stolen by the Nazis in 1940 from a wealthy Jewish collector in Vienna. The museum then entered into a long series of negotiations with the Commission for Art Recovery, which acted as representatives, for the heirs of the painting, to determine the authenticity of the claim.

"We were quite fortunate to have a lot of information to support their claim," said John Coffey, chief curator of the museum. "It took the better part of the year to get the information. Based on the evidence, it was clear the painting was stolen goods, and we very quickly moved to acknowledge that."

The museum's diligence and efforts paid off. Not only was this the first case in which an American museum had returned a major work of art stolen by the Nazis without litigation, but the family offered to sell the painting to the museum at a price well below its estimated market value. They asked that the acquisition be considered a partial gift of the family in recognition of the good faith shown by the museum in returning the painting.

"There was an understanding from the very first that if the painting were proven to be stolen, we would very quickly return it to the heirs," Coffey said. "That's something I'm very proud of -- that everyone involved saw there was a moral obligation to do the right thing, and that transcended the mere legal issues."

The Denver Art Museum recently underwent a similar experience. In response to an inquiry received in March, 2000 via the museum's Web site as to whether or not the museum owned "The Letter" by the Dutch painter Gerard Ter Borch, the museum discovered that the provenance of the painting was dubious.

"It had been sold at auction in 1934," said Joan Carpenter Troccoli, deputy director of the museum. "We did research ourselves and discovered it was a dealer that was famous for conducting socalled Jewish auctions. A number of works of art stolen by the Nazis passed through that auction house."

The painting was formally de-accessioned in November, 2000 and will be returned to the family as soon as transfer documents are completed.

Both of these cases call attention to two issues. First, in recent years, public awareness of the extent and significance of Nazi looting of historical objects has grown significantly. Second, the topic needs to be addressed in an effort to guide American museums as they strive to maintain ethical museum practice.

The American Association of Museums (AAM), in cooperation with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), has responded to the growing concern by developing a set of guidelines to help museums address the problems of objects that were unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era. In addition, AAM is working on other, more detailed, guidance for the museum community in this area. According to Ed Able, president and chief executive officer of AAM, these guidelines make it easier for museums without "normal, hard-and-fast factual and extensive evidence" to return objects.

"In the case of objects that may have been appropriated during the Nazi era, the purpose of our guidelines is to provide a more liberal way of viewing and assessing objects," Able said. "Museums' have a public stewardship responsibility. Both the board and staff have a legal and fiduciary responsibility to make sure, if we're going to give something back, that the claim is valid and that it's going back to the right person."

"Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During The Nazi Era," is intended to be use by muse s in developing and implementing policies and practices that address this issue. (See accompanying story.)

Proving provenance is not an easy task especially when dealing with Nazi loot, explained Dr. Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) in New York City.

"Traditionally, art historians were trained to do this type of research, which can be very tedious, difficult and time-consuming to do and is not --not ins insignificantly - always possible to do," Flescher said. "It often requires very, very tedious research."

Necessary details are found in document that are not easily accessible and are scattered all over the world. Some may never be found. Sometimes you can come up with this material and it's very, very simple to do; sometimes you may never fill in the gaps."

What museums are trying to do today, Flescher said, is research all works acquire after 1932 and created prior to 1946 -- both those on public display and in their private collections. If museums know the provenance of these objects and they are not objects that could have been misappropriated, then it is clear they are OK for the purposes of this exercise. However, where a gap in provenance is discovered, museums are doing additional research.

"Having a gap in provenance does not necessarily mean that the work was misappropriated during the war," Flescher said. "It only means there is a gap in provenance that hasn't been file or that further research is warranted."

Able believe that AAM's guidelines are reflective of both the attitude and processes museums have been following for years.

"From my observation of efforts of museums so far, we're going to find very few objects in relation to overall museum collections that were looted during the Nazi era," Able said. "Museums in this country are a great deal more careful about what they accept, and for many years, to the best of their ability, they have determined provenance before accepting an object."

For Troccoli and other museum directors across the country, AAM's guidelines mean that best practices will codified.

"The virtue of these thoughtful guidelines is that other people will deal with these issues in the same way," Troccoli said. "They make it easier for us and our staffs to respond, and they also do not create unnecessary confusion for claimants."

Gina Bernacchi is a reporter for the Denver News Bureau.

AAM's Investigation Guidelines

The complete text of American Association of Museum's "Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era" can be found on AAM's Web site,, under "Hot Topics."

The guidelines are intended to "facilitate the desire and ability of museums to act ethically and lawfully as stewards of the objects in their care, and should not be interpreted to place an undue burden on the ability of museums to achieve their mission." Below are the guidelines' main points:

* Acquisitions: Take all reasonable steps to resolve the Nazi era provenance status of objects before acquiring them for their collections, whether by purchase, gift, bequest or exchange.

* Loans: In the role as temporary custodians of objects on loan, be aware of their ethical responsibility to consider the status of material borrowed, as well as the possibility of claims being brought against a loaned object in their custody.

* Existing Collections: Make serious efforts to allocate time and funding to conduct research into objects in collections whose provenance is incomplete and that may have changed hands during the Nazi era.

* Claims of Ownership: Address claims of ownership asserted in connection with objects in their custody openly, seriously, responsively and with respect for the dignity of all parties involved.

* Fiduciary Obligations: Affirm that collections are held in the public trust when undertaking the activities listed above.
COPYRIGHT 2001 NPT Publishing Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:American Association of Museum guidelines on how to deal with stolen art
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 15, 2001
Previous Article:Opportunity In Picking The Bones Of Bankruptcy.
Next Article:Oh Yeah, The 990.

Related Articles
Heritage for sale.
Museum group issues guidelines on ethical business practices. (In the News).
Alas, Babylon! How the Bush Administration allowed the sack of Iraq's antiquities. (arts).
Vase deferens. (Artifact).
Heritage Watch.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters