18 April 2015

Current state of affairs in the United States (not pretty) as of April 18, 2015

by Marc Masurovsky

Legislative battles (past and on-going):

The organized American museum community failed in its second attempt in as many years to get the Congress to pass a sweeping bill that would have granted automatic immunity from seizure to any art object brought into the United States for display. As usual, it had passed the House of Representatives with little or no discussion. But, fortunately, the proposed bill got lost in the Senate since no Senator wanted to sponsor it.

Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, is pressing for passage of bipartisan legislation that would establish a cultural property Czar in the United States government, responsible for coordinating all issues related to cultural property as they affect US relations with foreign nations especially in conflict zones where such property is threatened by war and terrorist acts (Syria, Iraq, etc…). The bill has bipartisan support and would edge the US closer to having some sort of cultural policy albeit one tied to counterterrorism and national security.

Does this mean that the physical destruction of cultural treasures by armed insurgents referred to as terrorists motivates the US government to take action in defense of culture?

Future legislative battles:

Can we envision a future where claimants should not worry about current possessors hiding behind statutes of limitations and being blamed for not having searched for their objects 24/7 (theory known as “laches”)?

Is it possible to even think that the provenance—history of ownership of an object—could become a requirement, read legal requirement, prior to any transaction?

Training in provenance research:

Currently, there are no plans to institutionalize provenance research in any academic program either at the college or university level or in art institutes or in the education sections of auction houses. As some art historians cynically and wrongfully point out, provenance research is implicit “in what we do.”

Provenance research remains marginalized as a luxury, an option, and a hobby. Choose the one you prefer. Where does that put those who earn their income as provenance researchers? Are they professionals? If so, how can one be a professional in a profession that does not have its own code of behavior, well-defined ethical and professional standards, well-defined methodologies recognized by “the field"?

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) make no visible efforts to encourage their members to recruit full-time researchers whose jobs would be to keep them honest and one step ahead of a legal claim.

The losers: 
-a disproportionate number of qualified and intelligent candidates who could serve as researchers; 

-museums which are not willing to expend tens of thousands of dollars to fulfill their due diligence requirements by knowing where their objects come from and whether they are trouble free.

Mid-to long-term effect: growing disillusionment and disenchantment among hundreds of researchers, young and not so young, who have staked their future careers on serving cultural institutions as researchers.

Long-term effect: a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lack of interest in becoming a professional researcher.

Is that really what museums want?

Let’s go back to the field for a minute.

Provenance research rose to relative prominence as a result of litigation in the late 1990s involving looted objects in private and public collections.  At least we would like to think that there are at least four methodologies or approaches which have evolved :

a/ one used by researchers working for the defense-the current possessors—and

b/ the methodology used by the plaintiff—the claimant seeking restitution.

c/ And then there is the methodology that an unknown number of art historians view as “implicit” to the way they exercise their profession.

d/ There is a smaller group of researchers who approach provenance not as provenance but as a historical cum forensic cum analytical cum contextual cum critical exercise, which taps into disciplines such as economics, political science, history, art history (yes!), forensics, and makes extensive use of deductive reasoning.
Apparently, there are at least four ways of slicing the methodological provenance research cake, some of them being produced by artificial environments brought about by the vested interests of the current possessors, an unhealthy way of treating any intellectual discipline. Politics should never be allowed to subvert research.

Proposal for the future

Find alternative ways to dispense with training in the methodologies needed to understand the history of  ownership of objects. 

How would that work?

One way is to produce documents (like manuals but less formal) explaining the methodologies involved in undertaking this kind of research and making them available to whomever would want to consider them for their own advancement.

Another way is to organize small-size workshops in different cities and towns at very little cost or free of charge (if subsidized) to those who desire them. Recent experience, though, has dampened our spirits in terms of actual demand. But let’s remain optimistic.
In order to accomplish the above, we need to strengthen ties among those who are genuinely interested in learning more about the history of objects displaced during times of war and other mass conflicts (including genocide), and especially in sharing know-how, resources and documents.

14 April 2015

A Woman in Gold, a film by Simon Curtis

by Marc Masurovsky

Let’s be clear about one thing. I went to see this film not expecting much, in the wake of that disaster called “Monuments Men.” So, with some trepidation, I chose to view “A Woman in Gold” with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. Ms. Mirren plays the role of Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who may have been one of Gustav Klimt’s flings in pre-1914 Vienna, so popular was he with the girls.

Ryan Reynolds plays a meek version of the formidable E. Randol Schoenberg whose wits, ingenuity and tenacity, enabled him to prevail over an intemperate, obstreperous Austrian government, unwilling by principle to return what was not theirs, namely the Klimt paintings removed by Nazi officials from the luxurious apartments of the Bloch-Bauer family. It pays to read documents and interpret them wisely, logically, and critically, which is what Mr. Schoenberg did with the help of Ms. Altmann and Mr. Czernin, the intrepid Viennese journalist who blew the top off Austrian deceit and denial relative to the government’s role since 1945 in blocking restitution claims in order to profit from wartime thefts of Jewish property. By sticking to the facts, he correctly pointed out that Adele Bloch-Bauer’s wish to donate the paintings to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna after Mr. Bloch-Bauer’s death was just that—a wish—The paintings were not hers, they were Mr. Bloch-Bauer’s. Moreover, the paintings were stolen and transferred BEFORE Mr. Bloch-Bauer’s death.
Randol Schoenberg
Maria Altmann

So, a crime had been committed and the Austrian government built a defense on a fiction. Mr. Schoenberg's realization that the Austrian government profited from the image of Ms. Altmann's property to make money in the United States sealed the legal strategy that took them straight to the US Supreme Court.

I saw the film with several attorneys who are steeped in art restitution matters, but who represent “average” claimants whose lost art objects do not even come close in value to the ethereal and irrational level of 100 plus million dollars which was ascribed to “Adele Bloch Bauer” back in the early years of the 21st century.

I surprised myself and left the theater not as upset as one of my colleagues who had a viscerally negative reaction. In his view, the film made it seem as if only the wealthiest Jewish families were the victims of Nazi plunder. There is something to be said about this criticism. Less than one per cent of all cultural items stolen by the Nazis and their allies have attained values coming close but not equaling that of the Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. Fewer than 20 per cent of all cultural items plundered between 1933 and 1945 were ever returned to their rightful owners, most of them valued in today’s hypertrophied art market at less than 100,000 dollars.

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in character
Aside from this, the film conveys two powerful messages rendered more poignant by Helen Mirren’s stature and presence as an irascible yet warm and proud Maria Altmann.

-art restitution is about personal loss, it takes an emotional toll on the victims, and the objects that were illegally misappropriated by Nazi agents and their collaborators hold more than financial value. They pack memories of lost lives, missing relatives, reminiscences of places from which they were driven away by the New Order imposed by the Third Reich. Restitution is a personal, gut-wrenching matter for most claimants.

-the only way to win a restitution battle is to go for broke. Your fight is made more difficult because of the prejudice, indifference, and condescension displayed by the current possessors whether private or public from whom the claimants seek some measure of justice. So, the message of the movie is: never give up even if you don’t think that you can prevail, because by taking on those very authorities which have profited from your loss, you set an example for others.

The only problem with the “go for broke” strategy is that few people can afford it. If only there were organizations or institutions that could advocate on behalf of claimants with few resources at their disposal, the world would be a different place.

But unfortunately, reality is starkly different. Ms. Altmann was fortunate enough to be the rightful owner of some of the most expensive paintings in the world and represented by an extremely creative and persistent young lawyer who achieved the impossible—restitution.

The film’s weaknesses stem from the caricaturing of those evil Austrians into a monolithic group of crypto-antisemites with nothing better to do than to display collective arrogance against (wealthy) Jews who lost their property and seek its return. Elisabeth Gehrer, the minister of culture at the time of the Altmann case and also-let’s not forget—the case involving the Leopold Museum against the heirs to Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” was portrayed as an inflexible figure. But she facilitated the passage of the only federal restitution law that exists in this world of ours. It is not the Altmann case that broke the ice in Austria. The Wally case did. So, somewhere, Ms. Gehrer’s heart was bent on reforming the Austrian zeitgeist when it came to righting the wrongs of the past even if in small doses.

The film blindsided the late Hubertus Czernin, the maverick Viennese journalist who broke open the dams of denial and deceit relative to the Austrian’s government exploitation of Jewish-owned properties, many of which have adorned the walls of Austrian museums. His persistence earned him the opprobrium of Austrian government officials—a compliment, one might add—and his reporting softened public opinion as well as that of the Austrian restitution authorities. There is a “johnny come lately” acknowledgment by Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) in thanking Hubertus right after Ms. Altmann gets the okay to recover her paintings.

The use of syrupy flashbacks to denote Maria Altmann's longing for the life and loved ones that she lost  became grating after the fifth time. There are other ways of conveying loss and nostalgia. We'll leave it at that.

Last but not least, it is difficult to capture all the complexities tied to a case which goes all the way to the Supreme Court.  The oversimplifications left us panting for more but that's ok, as long as the pathos continued to stir us up.

One should thank the film’s screenwriter for having given Ms. Altmann some stirring lines which she might or might not have spoken in real life, but they helped humanize her as a claimant whose heart was broken by Austrian Nazis; it is not clear whether the return of the paintings ever helped to mend her wounds. How can one forget the loss of one’s parents? The restitution must have helped somewhat. Hard to tell.

The Bloch-Bauers as well as other members of Austria’s Jewish elite were just that—members of an elite that had all the trappings of an informal aristocracy. They had their counterparts all across Europe. The Nazis vied for their property and massacred them where they could. Most were able to flee.

However, the vast majority of Jewish victims of Nazism were middle-class, working class, or farmers, or peddlers, ill-fed intellectuals and artists, members of orthodox and Hasidic communities, scattered across Europe. Every object that they lost, regardless of its esthetic or pecuniary value, contains a part of their soul and constitutes a direct link to the communities that Nazism tried to destroy and in many instances succeeded in doing so. These victims had few advocates after 1945 and today they have even less and will never recover their lost properties.

In the end as in the beginning, a loss is a loss, no matter how wealthy or poor you are. And restitution is the only form of justice that can help mend the wounds of persecution and plunder.

As Maria Altmann rightfully put it, it is about justice.

11 April 2015

Russian olive branch to Greece in the form of an icon

by Marc Masurovsky

On April 9, 2015, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, delivered the equivalent of an olive branch to Alexis Tsiras, newly-elected premier of Greece. Mr. Tsiras has the ingrate task of extricating Greece from a near-fatal case of economic catastrophe. On the occasion of his first State visit to Moscow, Mr. Tsiras received an icon representing “St Nicholas the Miracle Maker and St. Spyridon” as a gift from Mr. Putin. This was no regular icon. It had been plundered during the German occupation of Greece between 1941 and 1945. Somehow, an unnamed Russian businessman acquired it from the descendants of the German officer who had stolen the item. The icon ended up in Putin’s hands and was turned over to the Greek government as a gesture of good will towards Greece and as an act of repatriation of looted cultural property from WWII.
Tsiras (left) with Putin (right)
This is how the story has been reported in about 90 per cent of international media outlets.

Naturally, as any inquisitive child would wonder, some questions are worth asking:

1/ who was the German officer in question?
2/ what happened to him?

Only one article mentioned the name and position of the German officer responsible for the theft of the icon. Other articles did indicate that this German officer was tried and executed by the postwar Greek government, in the middle of Greece’s Civil War (1944-1949).  Most articles simply passed over these details, instead they focused their attention on the gift of the stolen icon to Greece and the circumstances of Mr. Tsiras' meetings with Mr. Putin.

The German officer’s name is Friedrich Wilhelm Müller. He spent his entire adult career in the Wehrmacht. During WWII, General Müller became deeply enmeshed in the repression and suppression of a number of villages on the Island of Crete between 1942 and 1944. These massacres earned Müller the  title of “butcher of Crete.” He was later transferred to the Eastern Front and was captured by Soviet Forces in East Prussia. Handed over to the Greeks, he was tried and convicted of war crimes. Müller was executed by firing squad in May 1947. He was 49 years old. 

The Russian news site “news.rin” reported that Müller stole the icon from the Monastery of Sparta.

A monastery in Sparta
Additional questions have no apparent answers right now but should be given extra weight:

3/ how did the Russian businessman find the descendants?
4/ why did the Russian businessman turn over the icon to the Russian government?
5/ what does this gesture towards Greece signify in terms of Russia’s overall stance on repatriation and restitution of looted cultural property on its territory, including the Jewish books from Thessaloniki, which might not have been discussed during Mr. Tsiras’ visit to the Kremlin?
6/ Is this a signal of greater empathy towards Greece, leading to other returns of cultural property?

An image of St. Spyridon

08 April 2015

HARP teams up with the Hopi tribe to denounce the illegal sale of sacred Hopi objects at Drouot


For Immediate Release

Press Contacts:

In New York, NY: Pierre Ciric (00) 1 212 260 6090, pciric@ciriclawfirm.com

In Washington, DC: plunderedart@gmail.com

In Kykotsmovi, AZ: Marilyn Fredericks, (00) 1 928 734 3107, MFredericks@hopi.nsn.us

Washington, DC & Flagstaff, AZ, USA – April 09, 2015 - The Holocaust Art Restitution Project (“HARP”), based in Washington, DC, chaired by Ori Z. Soltes, and Herman G. Honanie, Chairman of the HOPI Tribe Council, are announcing the joint filing of a lawsuit in France to appeal a recent decision by the French “Conseil des Ventes” (“Board of Auction Sales”), an administrative body in charge of regulating and supervising auction sales on the French market. Although the CVV has the administrative power to suspend sales, it refused to suspend a December 15, 2014 auction sale of sacred “kwaa tsi” owned by the Hopi tribe. The CVV allowed the sale to proceed after a special hearing held in Paris on December 11, 2014, rejecting the arguments put forth by HARP and the Hopi Tribe that title had never vested with subsequent possessors due to the sacred nature of these objects.

Papers were filed with the main Civil Court in Paris called the “Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris” to appeal the denial of HARPs’ request for the administrative suspension of the December 15, 2014 auction sale of sacred Hopi objects, also known as “Friends.”

“The CVV’s position is unsustainable: no adjudication authority can, as the CVV repeatedly did, refuse the most basic access to justice by holding that neither the Hopi tribe as a group, nor the Hopi tribe Chairman as an individual, have any standing to file any cultural claim in France. Last June, in a similar proceeding, the Conseil had held that the Hopi tribe, in fact ANY Indian tribe, has no legal existence or standing as a group or as a recognized nation to pursue any cultural claim in France. In December 2014, the CVV held that the Hopi tribe Chairman, in his individual capacity had no legal standing either. These two decisions close the door to ANY tribal group AND their members to file any cultural claims in France involving auction houses, regardless of title-related merits. Furthermore, this complete denial of access to justice flies in the face of international law principles in favor of all tribes and indigenous peoples, as the French government had endorsed, in the UN General Assembly, the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),” said Soltes.


The Hopi Tribe is a federally recognized tribe of American Indians, who live in northeastern Arizona. The Hopi Tribe remains one of the most religiously traditional tribes within the United States.

HARP is a not-for-profit group based in Washington, DC, dedicated to the identification and restitution of looted artworks require detailed research and analysis of public and private archives in North America. HARP has worked for 16 years on the restitution of artworks looted by the Nazi regime.

For more information, please visit www.facebook.com/plunderedart, on Twitter: @plunderedart,

Blog: http://plundered-art.blogspot.com/

Copyright © 2014 Holocaust Art Restitution Project, Inc., All rights reserved.