Confront the Past, Search for Provenance

Hector Feliciano is author of "The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art."

A sea-change is taking place in Europe and the United States regarding Nazi art loot. The latest example is the recent decision by the Austrian minister of culture to make an inventory of all artworks acquired by the country's 10 state museums during the war and postwar years. Hence, more than 53 years after the end of World War II, many of those ill-acquired works--probably reaching into the hundreds--should soon be returned to their rightful owners.

The deeper reasons for this transformation go back, of course, to the intricate changes in Western mentality and the renewed interest in unsolved national and domestic problems brought about by the end of the Cold War. But another, more specific and concrete incident can be found at the base of that which we are now witnessing.

After years of stonewalling, the revelations, starting in late 1995, that France had more than 2,000 unclaimed paintings, drawings, sculptures and other artworks looted by the Nazis or sold to them still "provisionally" safeguarded in the Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou Center and other French state museums, took the international art world by surprise.

This information surfaced even before news broke on the well-publicized cases of Nazi gold and the dormant Swiss bank accounts. These unclaimed works included masterpieces, such as Courbet's "The Cliffs of Etretat, After a Storm" and important and well-known works by Boucher, Chardin, Cezanne, Manet, Picasso, Matisse and Leger. Some unclaimed pieces were even being used as state furniture: an 18th-century bust decorated a room at the Elysee presidential palace; a Rodin cast--"The Kiss"--was installed in the garden of the prime minister's residence, and a painting by Utrillo hung on the wall of an executive's office at the state-owned Credit Lyonnais Bank. More stunning was the fact that French museum curators had never published an official inventory of these works and had done little or nothing to establish serious provenances--or ownership histories--and find the rightful owners.

Public outrage led to a large, national debate that forced recalcitrant French state museums, unaccustomed to any type of public supervision, to promise publication of a definitive inventory (which has yet to be done); to create an Internet site with a list and illustrations of the unclaimed works, and to exhibit the works. Rapidly, dozens of new claims by dispossessed owners were filed. Though two paintings have been returned, museum officials are still dragging their feet, treating claimants and claims with suspicion, while their official statements insist they have done everything they could since the end of the war. All in all, this shortsighted attitude--essentially hoping the problem will evaporate--has led to a public-relations disaster.

The vicissitudes of the French cultural world still strongly influence other countries. Many art lovers, curators, art dealers and art historians across Europe and the U.S. closely followed the developments of the intransigent French museum situation and slowly felt its repercussions in their own countries: Nazi-looted artworks started surfacing in art galleries, auction houses, private collections and museums.

Soon, it was revealed that Dutch museums held hundreds of similarly "provisionally" safeguarded artworks, unclaimed and stored there since the end of World War II. In Germany, curators and the media are investigating artworks purchased by their museums in wartime occupied Europe. In the U.S., the highly publicized case of two Egon Schiele paintings loaned by an Austrian art foundation to the Museum of Modern Art in New York captured the public's imagination. The American Assn. of Museum Directors has set up a task force composed of directors of some of the most important museums to try to find a solution.

The decision by the Austrian state museum system--with its prestigious Kunsthistorische, Albertina and Belvedere museums--to research the provenances of its dubious acquisitions is the latest and, probably, the most comprehensive answer to what started in France more than two years ago.

Until recently, Austria had ignored its own Nazi past, declaring itself a victimized nation occupied by the Nazis--as the Allies also did. It selectively forgot it was annexed by the German Reich--with the enthusiastic acclaim of a large part of the Austrian population. In fact, after the Austrian Anschluss in 1938, art curators from the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna helped confiscate the entire collection of the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family and established the looting inventory. Later, during the war, Austrian curators and art dealers bought art at bargain prices all across Nazi-occupied Europe. After the war, when the Rothschilds tried to recover their works, the Austrian government announced they would have to leave some artworks in state museums if they wanted to take others out.

The Austrian minister of culture recently labeled these actions "immoral decisions." The Kunsthistorische has announced it will now consider returning about 10 paintings. In the Belvedere, about 100 works will be subject to provenance check.

The Austrians have taken not a cultural but a political decision. This is a huge shift. As recently as the fall of 1996, the Austrian government tried closing, once and for all, the recurrent question of looted art in that country. It hastily organized a seemingly definitive auction of the residues of unclaimed artworks kept since the end of the war in a monastery at Mauerbach. With those sales, it implied the issue was closed, which makes this most recent announcement all the more startling.

Following the Austrian example, can museums and all those involved in the art world in the U.S. and Europe now begin seriously searching for the provenance of works of art? It is absurd to have to ask a question that has a seemingly simple answer; but it seems as if our ignorance about provenance, a small element of the history of art, is keeping us from undoing what the Nazis did.

We now know the following: Few have, up to now, cared about the provenance of artworks; that an auctioneer, an art dealer or a curator often does not know whether a painting is purloined; that there is no database available where a researcher can find this information and, most important, there is no law that forces a seller to search and find out whether an artwork was looted by the Nazis or even stolen.

We now know it is indeed possible to search for the provenance of a work of art--but only if strong public opinion pushes forward this new attitude.

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