Nazi-Looted Art: The Case of the Missing Perspective

Article excerpt

ART RESTITUTION GIVES A VERY LIMITED PICTURE OF what the general public and the art and museum worlds should understand about an artwork and who owned it. Obviously, if families had artworks stolen during the Nazi era, they should be able to claim them. It would be most unfortunate, however, if all that is remembered about restitution is the claim of the heirs--mostly for something that belonged to their parents or grandparents--who often have little or no knowledge of what their grandfather collected.

The looting is the end of the story. We have an opportunity not to be missed. This is not simply about getting a painting back. Restitution must be seen from a historical perspective and within a historical context. We need to look at how people built their collections, how they contributed to the arts. They were not just decorating their homes; they were patrons of late 19th and early 20th century art in Europe.

Restitution should be an entrance into the world of Jewish collectors and the contributions they made to the arts. It needs to be done. It would be most unfortunate if, in the end, this whole episode is remembered because of the restitution claims. Jewish collectors were a significant part of European cultural life. This is not of interest to the Jewish community alone. Due to the disproportionate role that Jewish collectors, dealers, curators and artists played in the space of a few years, it is significant to the city, the region, the country where they lived. It is important for European cultural history--and it needs to be recognized.

What is missing is the joyous celebration of their contribution--so there is a counterbalance to this restitution aspect, which many critics and others view with a certain cautiousness and even resentment. This may help the public to better understand why the heirs are making these claims and why the issue has come up two generations later: because their ancestors made significant contributions that ought not be forgotten.

We who toil in the restitution field constantly deal with criticism that has a more-or-less strong anti-Semitic undercurrent. A commonly heard complaint from those who would deny the heirs their due is this one: "Now these people come along 60 years after the war and make their claims because now these works of art are valuable. Do these people then keep these works? No, they give them to the auction house, and cash in on the paintings."

There are a variety of legitimate and quite practical reasons why the heirs head for the auction houses. For example, if there are five heirs, how are they to share one painting? It takes deep pockets to fight for a piece of looted art and this is money many heirs do not have. Once their patrimony is recovered, how else can they cover their losses?

Such criticisms and the responses to them, however, obscure the greater issue: We should use this opportunity to recognize, for the benefit of all of us, these collectors. Who were these people? What were their motives? In what activities did they engage? What were their relationships with artists and art institutions? What might have gone unnoticed if these collectors had not been attracted to a particular style or artist?

In long run, it is much more important that these restitution efforts be used to re-establish a name. No one knew about Ismar Littmann or Max Silberberg of Breslau for two generations before the restitution claims came up. Look at the Bloch-Bauers. (1) The claim for the Gustav Klimt paintings went on for years. Thanks to the research of the late Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin, we now have quite a bit of information about them: who they were, how their relationship to the artists is to be understood. That is not the case, however, for the majority of the other European Jewish collectors. With the exception of the Bloch-Bauer Klimts and other big-ticket items that get into the newspapers, we learn little or nothing about the collectors and their relationships to the artists. …