Museums Increasingly Criticized for Failure to Return Stolen Nazi-Era Art
15 Years after 44 nations including the United States signed the groundbreaking Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, museums are finally being faulted for their intransigent position on returning stolen art from the era.
Through legal and other tactics to block survivors or their heirs from pursuing claims, many museums have been able to hold on to their prized possessions despite clear proof contradicting their right to ownership.
“The response of museums has really been lamentable,” Jonathan Petropoulos, the former research director for art and cultural property for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets, told the New York Times. “It is now so daunting for an heir to go forward.”
Christine Anagnos, executive director of the museum directors association, said its members were committed “to resolving questions about the status of objects in their custody.” She told the Times that most cases are resolved through negotiation before claimants feel compelled to file suit.
Part of the problem is the murky nature of the process. The Times writes: “Critics, including the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and the Commission for Art Recovery, say problems arise in the less straightforward cases, where documentation is missing or it is unclear whether Jewish owners freely parted with a work of art or were coerced by the Nazi authorities into selling it for a pittance.”
For example, the complicated nature of claiming stolen art from a museum can be witnessed in the case of the heirs of German artist George Grosz.
In 2011 a federal judge dismissed the Groszes’ lawsuit, citing the statute of limitations (a tactic used by many museums). Before the case landed in court, the museum hired the former United States attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach (who died in 2012) to review their evidence. Katzenbach concluded that Grosz’s Jewish art dealer had fair title to the works and freely sold them. The Groszes’ own experts, though, declared that the dealer was forced to flee Germany after his gallery was “Aryanized” in 1933 and given to a Nazi Party member.
This interpretation was affirmed in April by a ruling from the German government’s advisory commission on plundered art in an unrelated case involving the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. While there is “an absence of concrete evidence,” the commission concluded that on balance, “it is to be assumed that the art dealer was forced to sell the disputed painting because he was persecuted.”
Margaret Doyle, a spokeswoman for MoMA, told the Times the museum has no interest in retaining works to which it does not have clear title. “After years of extensive research,” she said, “including numerous conversations with Grosz’s estate, it was evident that we did in fact have good title to the works by Grosz in our collection and therefore an obligation to the public to defend our ownership appropriately.”
But George Grosz’s son Martin, 83, points to a letter his father wrote in 1953 after seeing one of the works, “The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse,” hanging at MoMA: “Modern Museum exhibits a painting stolen from me (I am powerless against that) they bought it from someone, who stole it.”