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Lightness & Dark

“Don’t believe everything you read,” was my first reaction to the news that the American Jewish Historical Society plans to sell six of its valuable, Colonial-era portraits of the Franks family. If only my hopefulness were justified.

The society’s sale is another nail in an ever-expanding coffin being built to inter the remains of dying public trust — but this time it’s a Jewish nail, and that has even more than the usual implications.

We’ve watched major art museums enter the market- place, their directors buying and selling with the vigor of art dealers but without the personal financial risk. For them, the only thing at stake is public responsibility, once considered among an institution’s most valuable assets.

When the New York Public Library sells off portions of New York’s art patrimony, with no understanding that these works belong to the citizens of New York, the outcries are minimal. So why should the American Jewish Historical Society assume that anyone would care if it secretly disposes of the Jewish community’s patrimony?

This indeed is apparently the stuff of under-the-table dealing. Otherwise, we would know a great deal more about it. When the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was faced with the potential sale at auction of the famous “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington, which had been on loan to the gallery, a public funding campaign, along with foundation grants, saved the portrait for the nation. The concept of public patrimony was used as a central part of the appeal — and people responded.

We don’t know what dealings the American Jewish Historical Society may or may not have had with other Jewish institutions, or what attempts were made to bring this issue to public attention. We can only surmise that these paintings were seen as valuable assets that might save a failing institution whose trustees don’t fully understand their trust responsibilities.

And there’s always a chance that legal challenges might slow down this fast-moving train for a reconsideration of its direction. What’s to say that some of the valuable documents now in the American Jewish Historical Society archives might not also turn up in the marketplace?

Does no one in the Jewish community see the irony in this sale of paintings? It’s worse than the travesties of marketplace greed that have infected so many of our public institutions. This is a Jewish issue that speaks to the past half-century’s history of our own anguish at the displacement, sale and wanton destruction of our patrimony over many generations, but most viciously in the Nazi era.

After World War II, the Allied powers formed the so-called Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., to place remnants of European Jewish community patrimony in American and other institutions that would be safer and more caring permanent homes for what little was left. New York’s Jewish Museum, the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, the Israel Museum, and the London Jewish Museum were among the beneficiaries, thereby acquiring some of their most beautiful Judaic treasures. This effort was made at a time when no one could have envisioned the resurgence of Jewish museums and other Jewish cultural entities that has since taken place in Europe.

But in recent years, as Jewish communal assets have continued to surface, especially in post-Cold War Eastern Europe, the number of institutions making conflicting claims to patrimony has grown. Six decades after the Nazis’ fall, scholars and historians are still discussing legal title issues, and the need for a clear and coherent communal stance on patrimony could not be greater.

Take, for example, the discovery in the 1990s by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — which is housed together with the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History — that a part of its pre-war archives, long thought to have been destroyed, was still extant in Vilna. A claim on the Jewish material was raised against Lithuania’s Central State Archives; eventually an agreement was reached whereby the material was sent to YIVO for microfilming and then returned to Lithuania, where it still resides. The material is now available for study in both New York and Vilna.

The precedent set this month by the American Jewish Historical Society makes it far from certain that such an arrangement could be reached the next time competing patrimony claims are raised. When one of the primary custodians of our communal past sees fit to dispose of what belongs to us — to us as American Jews — it makes it awfully hard for us to complain about what happens in other countries.

To be sure, there have also been positive developments in the field of Jewish cultural preservation. We’ve started to make progress saving the synagogues of our American past, many in small communities where Jews once lived, instead of constantly complaining about the ones that were destroyed in Europe. The Council of American Jewish Museums now includes 75 institutional members — a development wholly unimaginable in the early 1960s, when I first started working as a curator at The Jewish Museum in New York. And there have never been so many Jewish studies programs in American universities.

Jewish culture thrives in ways our parents would never have imagined, as the National Foundation for Jewish Culture can demonstrate with endless citations of Jewish creative activities in literature, dance, theater, music, art and film. We have all just completed a self-congratulatory year celebrating the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America and pointing out our unparalleled achievements. The jubilee included a major exhibition at the Library of Congress and all sorts of official events, a reflection of our power and comfort in a society that only too recently was awash with antisemitism.

There’s even a petition under way asking President Bush to declare each January “Jewish History Month.” One can only wonder if this month’s announcement of the private sale of American Jewish portraits from a public Jewish institution to private owners in Arkansas is to be the capstone of this celebration.

The lesson from the American Jewish Historical Society’s sale of the Franks portraits is that in our successful gains at assimilation, we are gradually assimilating the values of greed that pervade so much of society. Apparently everything is for sale, and while we make grandiose claims that our tradition tells us otherwise, the very institutions that we entrust to guard the artifacts of our past — without which we claim to be unable to understand our present — now see those objects as nothing more than merchandise with cash value. Whether or not it recognizes what has happened, the American Jewish Historical Society’s sale of the Franks portraits has put at risk the credibility of all American Jewish institutions.

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