This editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
The looting of art by the Nazis during World War II was, arguably, the greatest cultural theft of all time. Seven decades later, Holocaust survivors and their descendants are still looking for paintings and other works that were taken as they fled Europe. Some experts estimate that 600,000 pieces of art were stolen; others say it’s much higher. About 100,000 works remain missing. Most were stolen from Jewish owners — ripped off the walls of their homes and galleries, sold by their owners under duress for a fraction of their true value or bartered for safe passage out of the country.
But even when a looted work of art is located, a new battle may begin over who deserves to own it. This month, the two-decades-long quest by the descendants of Lilly Cassirer to reclaim the Camille Pissarro painting she was forced to surrender in return for an exit visa from Berlin in 1939 landed in a federal court in Los Angeles.
No one disputes that the Pissarro masterpiece depicting a rainy Paris streetscape — “Rue Saint-Honore, Apres Midi, Effet de Pluie” — once hung in Cassirer’s parlor. But her relatives and their lawyer, David Boies, contend that the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, where the Impressionist painting now hangs, knew that it was Nazi-looted art when it was bought from the museum’s namesake, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who has since died. Boies, who represents Cassirer’s surviving great-grandson, David Cassirer, argues that the baron, a major collector, was shamelessly, willfully aware that the painting was Nazi-looted art.
The museum disputes that, saying everyone acted in good faith. U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter will rule on who is the rightful owner of the painting, valued at $30 million or perhaps more.
In that particular case, the evidence is pretty persuasive that the purchasers of the painting did not do their due diligence. But in some other cases, it is not clear at all whether the purchasers were aware of the dubious provenance of the art they bought.
Nevertheless, the moral bottom line should be obvious: People whose art was stolen from them by the Nazis in wartime Europe should get it back or be justly compensated for it.
Museums, particularly here in the U.S., have made a good start of going through their collections to identify suspect work that circulated in the Nazi era, but experts say they should be doing more research on the provenance of their collections. More online databases of lost or suspect art are available online for search, but they need to be made easier to access.
Leading auction houses have strict rules for investigating the provenance of works of art and won’t sell any that were. According to Christie’s, the auction house has resolved close to 200 claims involving disputed artworks over the last 20 years. Nor will any reputable dealer sell looted art.
There’s nothing simple about restitution for victims of the Holocaust. But not dealing with restitution only compounds the immorality of the original theft.
Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News