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The spoils of war

— June 2013

Associated media

Poster announcing 'Rewriting history: The recovery of Nazi-looted art'

Clare Finn attended a recent discussion on the restitution of art looted during the Second World War

War looting has occurred from time immemorial. But much of that done by the Nazis was aimed at changing the nature of German culture and concerned 20% of all European art. Given its scale, it is surprising that protocols were not established for dealing with it until 1998, during the Washington Conference of Holocaust-Era Assets. As Howard Spiegler explained in this interesting discussion at the London Jewish Cultural Centrein April, political lobbying has created shifts, and momentum is growing.  The conference encouraged nations to implement its principles, and there have since been an increasing number of claims for the restitution of Nazi-looted art.

Nazi art seizures were of different sorts. ‘Degenerate art’ that did not conform with Nazi ideas was seized from German museums and formed part of the ‘Entartete Kunst’ travelling exhibition. Following that, many works were destroyed or sold at auction. The Nazis also purchased works at low prices in occupied countries through forced sales, and Jews sold pieces under duress, often at reduced prices.

By 1945 those who had come through the war were more concerned with survival. It took until the third generation for people to raise questions into family histories. Spiegler, now a leading lawyer on art restitution, illustrated the complexities of the restitution process with the Kunstsammlungen Zu Weimarv. Elicofon and Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally cases.

The first case concerned two portraits by Albrecht Dürer from the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar, stored in Schwarzburg Castle in Thuringia, in former East Germany.Towards the end of hostilities, while American troops occupied the castle, the paintings disappeared. They were discovered in 1966 with a New York collector who bought them in 1946 from an American serviceman. Learning their location, the Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar filed suit for their restitution. But it took until in 1981, almost 13 years, before a court ordered the paintings’ delivery to their rightful owner, the Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar. Some of the case’s complexities involved the US government’s lack of recognition of East Germany until 1974, and another claimant, the Grand Duchess of Saxony-Weimar, who maintained that the Dürers were only lent to the Museum.

This was the first time that a foreign government had sued in the US to have property returned. Back then, the 1970s, there was no restitution law; it has developed since and its gradual development has further complicated already complex cases. Spoilation’s core definitions did not begin to be developed until the 1980s.

In the years when Jews were desperate to leave Germany, ownership could go from person to person, further clouding the issue. In the case of Schiele’s Portrait of Wally, the painting was owned privately by the gallery owner Lea Bondi Jaray, who on fleeing the ‘Anschluss Österreichs’, in 1938, gave it to the art dealer Friedrich Welz, under duress. He had seen it in her apartment and demanded it. ‘Give him whatever he wants, you know what he can do’ were Bondi’s husband’s chilling words, convincing her to part with it.

The US Restitution Division returned the portrait to the Austrian authorities after the war but it then went to another Jewish family who owned several other Schieles. They subsequently sold them and the Wally to the Galerie Belvedere. In 1954 the painting was acquired by the art collector Rudolph Leopold. It then becamepart of the Leopold Museum’s collection when the government purchased much of Leopold’s collection.  Towards the end of an exhibition of Schiele’s work in 1997–8, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in which the Wally was included, a New York Times article revealed its history. Bondi’s heirs contacted the New York County District Attorney, who subpoenaed the painting, forbidding its return to Austria. Proceedings took until 2010, beforeagreement was reached between the heirs, the US government and the Leopold Museum, which paid the heirs $19 million under an agreement that addressed all outstanding claims on the painting.

The problem of finding original owners, if they survived, meant that many looted works passed to museums after the war rather than reaching their rightful owners. Here,  the Internet has been a ‘game changer’, with museums posting on their websites works that have gaps in their provenance between 1933 and 1945. The end of the cold war also meant that many more archives became available. Nonetheless, more looted pieces are found in private hands than in museums.

Differences between the US, UK and European law are another aspect of the problem. When title is proved, many museums return property but this seems easier in Europe where most museums are state owned and have boards that can mediate, than the US, where many museums are privately owned. On the other hand, obtaining good title to stolen property in some US states is not possible. In Europe, if it is proved that a property was purchased in good faith and held for a certain time in good faith, legal title passes from the original owner. In the UK the statute of limitations is five years; in the US it varies from state to state.

While cases involving high-value works gain most publicity the discussion emphasized pieces that are valued rather than valuable. Most items recovered are low in monetary value. There are also economics of taste: some items sold for more in 1942 than they would today. The art market’s role is nevertheless important; some pieces are restored to their owners and then sold, others come up for sale and are then found to be looted.

There is little chance of locating low-value pieces. Some organizations, such as the Holocaust Claims Processing Office, do research but cannot litigate. The Commission for Looted Art in Europe, an international, non-profit body, researches, identifies and recovers cultural property on behalf of families, institutions and governments worldwide, negotiating and tracing rightful owners. Yet it is estimated there are still 100,000 artworks to be claimed.


Clare Finn
Art historian and conservator

Background info

For an account of how Jewish families could be affected by Nazi confiscations, see The Hair with Amber Eyes, by Edmund du Waal, a book with much else to engage anyone interested in art history and/or family history.

Editor's notes

Rewriting History: The Recovery of Nazi-Looted Art was a discussion held at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on Monday 29 April 2013, as part of the Ben Uri Gallery Talking Art Series. Howard Spiegler, co-chair, International Art Law Group, Herrick, Feinstein LLP, was in conversation with David Glasser, chairman of The Ben Uri Gallery.

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