According to experts, at least 600,000 works of art were looted from the Jewish people before and during World War II. Some of this looting ended up in major museums around the world.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a law in August requiring museums to post signs identifying exhibits looted by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945.
The new rule comes as many museums in the United States and Europe also rely on collections containing many objects looted from Asia, Africa and elsewhere during centuries of colonialism.
It’s unclear how many of the artworks currently on display will end up qualifying as Nazi loot, and disagreements have already arisen over some artworks with convoluted histories.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York said it identified 53 works from its collection as having been seized or sold under duress during the Nazi era.
All of these items were obtained by the museum after being returned to their rightful owners. But Andrea Bayer, the museum’s deputy director for collections and administration, said the public should always know their story.
“People should be aware of the terrible cost to people in World War II as these confiscations took place, and how the treasures of these peoples that they loved and had been in their families, were taken from them at the same time that their lives were disrupted,” she said.
The museum does not, however, intend to put such a sign on a painting by Picasso entitled “The Actor”, which he received as a gift in 1952.
This painting once belonged to Jewish businessman Paul Leffmann, who fled Germany – first to Italy, then eventually to Brazil – to escape the Nazis. As Leffmann liquidated his assets in 1938, he sold the painting to Parisian art dealers for $13,200.
Leffmann’s great-grandniece, Laurel Zuckerman, sued the Metropolitan Museum in 2016, claiming it was a cut-price sale that reflected the family’s desperation to flee Europe. The museum countered that the price was actually high for a first Picasso at the time. A US court ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.
Lawrence Kaye, one of the lawyers who represented Zuckerman, said that despite this result, the museum should still display a sign with the painting’s disputed history.
“I believe the law would cover this room. It was rejected for technical reasons and I think under the broad definition of what this law means under the law, it should be covered,” Kaye said.
Tracing an object’s provenance has become easier in the digital age, and some museums have launched efforts to identify works of art with a problematic ownership history.
New York law already required museums to report works suspected of being stolen during the Nazi era to the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest database of stolen art.
A US law passed in 2016 provides victims of Holocaust-era persecution and their heirs with a fair opportunity to recover artwork taken by the Nazis.
“This law did things legally that allowed people to make claims and sue,” said Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Claims Conference, a group that represents World Jewry in bargaining. compensation for the victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s better,” he said.
In 2018, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York returned a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner titled “Gunners” to the family of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who was forced to abandon his collection after fleeing Berlin in 1933.
A spokesperson for the Guggenheim said the museum was not aware of any other works in its collections that were looted by the Nazis, but it was continuing its research.
In 2019, the Arkell Museum in upstate New York returned a painting after learning it had been stolen by Nazis from a Jewish family in 1933.
Last year, the Jewish Museum in New York devoted an entire exhibition to the theme of looted art and ceremonial objects.
While flagging Nazi-looted artwork is a policy unique to New York, other US museums have undertaken efforts to trace the origin of potentially stolen artwork.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts launched a Nazi-era provenance search on their works in 1998, where they identify items from the collection that were lost or stolen during the Nazi era and have never been returned. to their rightful owners.
The Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles researched the German art trade between 1900 and 1945 and now provides digital access to auction catalogs related to Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Among the 53 pieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that will receive signage identifying them as having been looted is a Turkish helmet dating from the late 15th and 16th centuries that had been seized by the Nazis from its owner, Baron Alphonse Mayer Rothschild in 1938. It was returned to the Rothschild widow in 1949 and sold to the museum in 1950.
Another is a 1695 painting titled “Gamepiece with a Dead Heron” by Dutch painter Jan Weenix. It was also seized by the Rothschild Nazis in 1939, then returned to his widow in 1948 and sold to the museum in 1950.
Over the past two decades, the museum has made or reached settlements on 10 works of art that changed hands during the Nazi era, including a painting by Claude Monet.
New York Senator Anna M. Kaplan, who sponsored the legislation, said the new law is partly intended to educate young people who don’t know about the Holocaust.
“Because Holocaust survivors are a dying generation, that becomes much more important,” said Fisher of the Claims Conference. “The object becomes much more important. The idea that students and the general public should go through museums to understand where these objects come from is important.