Study: U.S. Museums Lag on Art Info

By Nathaniel Popper

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
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On the eve of fresh congressional hearings about the return of artworks looted during the Nazi era, a new study indicates that American museums have lagged behind on commitments they made in the late 1990s to research and publicize potentially looted artworks.

The study, conducted by the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, surveyed 332 American museums about their progress in fulfilling the terms of a 1998 pact on finding and returning looted art. The 1998 agreement, known as the Washington Conference Principles, bound museums and governments to a set of standards on expediting the return of Nazi-looted art.

Indicative of the slow progress, the Claims Conference noted, was the low response rate to the survey: Of the 332 museums queried, fully 118 did not even respond, including such prestigious institutions as the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Even among those museums that did respond, the picture was not a great deal more encouraging to leaders in the field. Only 12% of potentially problematic art works have been fully researched and publicized, according to the survey. Such research is considered the first step toward facilitating the return of looted works.

At the congressional hearings this week, the findings from American museums were to be set in the context of progress on art restitution in European countries, where a majority of looted works are thought to reside. There the progress has been even slower than in the United States, according to the American government’s lead negotiator on Holocaust restitution during the 1990s, Stuart Eizenstat.

“It’s a pretty bleak picture of compliance abroad,” said Eizenstat, who was scheduled to testify July 27 before the House subcommittee on international finance and trade.

It is not known how many artworks were looted during the Holocaust, but the Claims Conference estimates the number at almost 650,000. There have been a handful of high-profile success stories, including the return earlier this year of five Gustav Klimt paintings to the family of the original owners. One of those paintings was subsequently bought for a record $135 million by cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. But this week’s testimony was set to make clear that such successes have been flashes in the pan.

“This is the first time since 2000 that anyone has paid serious attention to this issue,” Eizenstat said.

Holocaust art restitution was always one of the most complex areas in the broad web of Holocaust-era restitution issues that arose in the late 1990s, which included restitution of bank accounts, insurance funds and real estate. Ownership of art is less traceable than that of other property, and consequently it is difficult for Holocaust survivors and their heirs to identify and find works they owned. In the survey, only 20 museums said they had received claims for Nazi-looted art.

After they do find the works, families must negotiate with museums or governments, with little legal precedent to guide them. The complexities of art restitution were evident in the recent return of the Klimt paintings. The case was stalled for many years over questions of international law, and was resolved only earlier this year after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a split ruling.

In its museum survey, the Claims Conference chose to review the very first step in the restitution process: the information available to families searching for their paintings.

“Without information, survivors and heirs have no chance of finding their artworks,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.

At the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, convened in late 1998, more than 40 governments agreed to make available information about potentially looted art. That year, the American Association of Museums published guidelines instructing museums to identify and research any artworks that were created before 1946 and acquired by the museum after 1932.

Despite these agreements, only 53% of the museums responding to the Claims Conference said that they are conducting any research into the provenance, or ownership history, of their collections, and only 11% of institutions said that the research is “almost complete.” A handful of museums have dedicated resources to the issue, the report said, citing the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

On the international front, the progress also has been uneven, with a handful of countries, including Austria and the Netherlands, leading the way in research and restitution. By contrast, Eizenstat said, the first steps have not yet been taken in Hungary and Poland.

To some extent, Holocaust art restitution has been overshadowed in the public eye by restitution of antiquities that were allegedly stolen from sites in Italy and Greece. A former curator of the Getty Museum is on trial in Italy for conspiracy to traffic in looted antiquities. The Getty did not respond to the survey on Holocaust restitution, and a spokesman for the museum said that the survey “fell through the cracks.”

The spokesman, John Giurini, said the museum plans to file its responses this week. The Guggenheim Museum is also planning to respond to the Claims Conference, according to a spokesman.

Among the museums that did respond to the Claims Conference survey was the Neue Galerie, the New York museum founded in 2001 by cosmetics heir and Jewish National Fund president Ronald Lauder. Lauder, who made the record-breaking purchase of the Klimt painting this year, was an early leader of the art restitution movement in the 1990s, testifying before Congress and spearheading the formation of the Commission for Art Recovery, originally an offshoot of the World Jewish Congress. In the past year Lauder has come under scrutiny because his museum has not published full provenance information. It is not currently among the 145 museums to display provenance information on an Internet portal created by the American Association of Museums.

A spokesperson for the Neue Galerie, Scott Gutterman, said that the curators are preparing to post their provenance research soon but have been delayed by other workload pressures. Lauder was not available for comment.

Moving forward, Taylor of the Claims Conference said that he hopes the survey will pressure museums to complete research. He is also planning to put pressure on private art dealers in America, who currently have no guidelines for dealing with looted works.

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