Restoring Nazi-looted Art to Rightful Owners Is No Simple Matter

Hundreds of 'suspected' pieces of art wait in Israeli museums, but the path to returning them to their owners is strewn with bureaucracy, says expert.

Wesley Fisher has been engaged for a quarter century in looking for cultural artifacts that the Nazis looted from Jews. His career has included a number of significant phases, including senior positions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. At the Claims Conference, he has been the director of the research department for the past decade.

The theft of property was an inseparable part of the genocide of the Jewish people, Fisher says, underlining what guides his work. He does not, however, get cooperation from every country in which Jewish property was stolen “I was trying to push the idea that property theft was an integral part of the genocide against the Jews,” he says, “but our society concentrated on the murders, the killings.”

Fisher, who is 69 and lives in the United States, came to Israel this week to attend a conference that was the first of its kind here, organized by the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets in an effort to recover assets owned by Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Among the participants at Thursday’s conference were representatives of a number of museums here, including the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. They explored the sensitive, emotionally-charged and complex subject of works of art that the Nazis stole from Jews, art that eventually found its way to Israel after the Holocaust.

In the conference deliberations, the claim was made that there are hundreds of such works of art at various museums in Israel. Up to now, however, most of them have not thoroughly researched the subject and no database exists that would allow potential heirs to submit claims to recover the property. However, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which investigated the subject deeply, present the "suspicious" pieces in its collection in two exhibitions, and restored 10 such artworks to their original Jewish owners. Museum personnel also advised their colleagues in other museums in Israel how to pursue activities in the field.

Fisher’s participation was in his role as an expert, to provide advice to his colleagues from Israel and to share the wide scope of knowledge that he has developed on the subject. A large number of objects came to Israel through a variety of means, he said, emphasizing that the relevant institutions should research the issue. It is important to know what is here and where it is exactly, Fisher said, explaining that in general important pieces are in museums and major libraries, and these institutions must therefore scrutinize their own collections.

The process of locating lost works of art and returning them to the families of their original owners is not a simple task. It’s not only difficult to find the artwork, but also to locate their rightful owners, Fisher explains, and cannot be dealt with easily anywhere in the world. Over a period of decades, art has been moved across international borders unhindered and without documentation regarding their original owners or their transfer from one party to another. Locating the art was made even more difficult due to the absence of a central authority in charge of claims to works of art.

During the 12-year period of the Nazi dictatorship from 1933 to 1945, thousands of works of art owned by Jews were plundered. The systematic looting, directed by senior Nazi officials, was carried out through a number of means: robbery, confiscation or forced sale. The art was then sent to museums or the private homes of high-ranking officials of the Third Reich, kept in warehouses or ultimately passed along to collectors and private art dealers.

No one knows exactly how many pieces of art were stolen, but experts commonly put the figure at around 600,000. Fisher also made reference to this number, but made it clear that it should be viewed with some reservation. No one has done an exact count, he said, so the figures are simply an educated guess or estimate.

The process of locating and returning the art is also beset by legal and technical difficulties. Many archives are still off limits, Fisher noted, and they don’t make the information that they have available to researchers. Some records have been destroyed and access to others is limited. Fisher has found it difficult, for example, to obtain records from public auctions and the sales records of private art dealers and collectors, which are not open to the public.

Every few months, Fisher’s field of expertise makes headlines, usually following a court ruling somewhere ordering a museum or private collector to return a piece of art to the descendants of Jews killed in the Holocaust or of Holocaust survivors. Last year, for example, a huge and valuable collection of 1,400 works of art stashed in a Munich apartment by the son of a Nazi-era art dealer was uncovered. The collection included works by Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse. A special team set up by the German government, which includes art experts, historians, government representatives, Claims Conference representatives and representatives from Israel, will shortly begin examining the collection in an effort to find the legal heirs to the items.

It is the largest private collection found since the end of World War II, Fisher said, adding the heist has attracted particular interest because it is in private hands rather than in a museum or government agency. But the fact that it was in private hands also presents legal and bureaucratic hurdles for the Germans.

The collection was confiscated by German tax authorities from the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the eccentric son of a well-known art dealer. The elder Gurlitt acted on behalf of Adolf Hitler’s deputy. Hermann Goering, trading in art stolen by the Nazis. Since it was uncovered several months ago, the collection has created a storm among Jewish organizations and the art community around the world.

News of the collection’s discovery also focused public attention on an international problem. The activities of Nazi art collectors after the war have still not been researched in Germany or elsewhere, Fisher said, adding that he and his colleagues have been demanding that German authorities intensively research the subject and devote themselves to convening an international committee to address the issue. Germany, he said, is conducting itself well with respect to returning Jewish assets, but in the case of works of art, it has still not been doing what needs to be done.

Data collected by the Claims Conference show that there are about 20,000 stolen works of art in museums and other institutions in Germany. Fisher says he is no less interested in the many collections of art that may be in private homes around the world, the existence of which may never become public. But he is optimistic, nonetheless. When the older generation dies off, the works of art suddenly surface, he explained. The second generation finds them in the attic and puts them up for sale, and then more and more of them come onto the market − and this trend is increasing.

In their efforts to locate the art, Fisher and his colleagues are aided by databases that document the location and ownership of many well-known works of art. Germany maintains such a database through the www.lostart.de website. On the site is information about Gurlitt’s Munich collection.

Another major database, established by the Claims Conference, is accessible at www.errproject.org and includes information on 22,000 items confiscated from Jews in France and Belgium, including 90 works by Picasso, 73 by Rembrandt, 63 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 53 by Matisse, 19 by Claude Monet, six by Leonardo da Vinci, and nine by Paul Gauguin. Even before the comprehensive examination of the Munich collection has begun, the available information has already enabled Fisher to identify several works from the collection with certainty as having been stolen from Jews.

One remaining question is the ultimate fate of works of art whose rightful owners are not found. That’s a very interesting question for which no one yet has an answer, Fisher says. One possible approach, he explains, would be to sell them and use the proceeds to help Holocaust survivors. Others suggest leaving them in Germany and exhibiting them in museums, clearly labeled as having been stolen. And there are also those who propose organizing them into a traveling exhibition that would tour the world and others who say they should be given to museums in Israel.

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem