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TESTIMONY BEFORE THE HOUSE BANKING & FINANCIAL
SERVICES COMMITTEE
BY GLENN D. LOWRY, DIRECTOR,
THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK
WASHINGTON, FEBRUARY 12, 1998

Good morning, Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Banking Committee. On behalf of the Trustees of The Museum of Modern Art, I want to thank you for this opportunity to discuss the role of America’s museums in addressing the fate of works
of art stolen or misappropriated immediately before, during, and after the Second World War.

Founded in 1929, The Museum of Modern Art is the largest and finest museum of its kind in the world. The Museum’s success is largely due to generous and public-spirited Americans who have given their time, expertise, works of art, and financial support to the institution. The Museum’s collection, which is unparalleled in its scope and depth, now numbers more than 100,000 works dating from the 1880s to the present. Every year more than 1.5 million people, over half of them tourists, come to the Museum to enjoy its collections, its exhibitions, and its educational programs. All of us at the Museum are deeply sensitive to the pain and loss suffered by victims of the Holocaust. The human and cultural devastation of the Second World War ripped open wounds that may never heal.

Let me begin then with an unequivocal statement: The Museum of Modern Art does not and will not knowingly exhibit stolen works of art. Like our sister institutions, we maintain our collections with scrupulous regard for our professional and ethical obligations.

Over the years, through the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums, we have formed strict collecting policy guidelines which we adhere to when conducting provenance research. But it is crucial to understand the enormous complexity and practical problems of resolving provenance questions. For many American museums, questions of ownership are both a familiar refrain and a new source of concern. Questions of provenance are nearly as old as the history of art, and rare is the museum that has never had to address the possibility that someone may claim a cherished work on public view as their personal property. Museums have always been able to address conflicting ownership claims responsibly and ethically, and there is no reason to believe that these long-standing professional practices will change. In that sense, despite the unique and particular horrors of the Nazi years, art looted during that period poses for museums a variation on an old theme: how may they continue to assure the public they serve and themselves that they have good title to the art in their collections.

So, while provenance research is not a new issue for art museums, what is new is the immeasurable complexity of provenance research on art in Europe during the 1930s and ‘40s. Although there has been enormous progress in the ability of scholars to use long-dormant information, the relevant documents continue to be far-flung, veiled in secrecy, and difficult to obtain. Historians like Lynn Nicholas and Hector Feliciano, who have done so much superb work in exposing the rapacity of the Nazis and their collaborators, spent years assembling their research and forming their conclusions. Their studies tell us that millions of works of art were in Germany and the occupied nations. Tens of thousands of those works were seized by the Nazis. Still others were lost, destroyed, or taken by others. Some of these works were masterpieces. Many others were works of lesser importance. Of the huge body of looted art, much was lost or destroyed during or after the war. The majority of works looted by the Nazis were restored to their owners or to their heirs by the commissions organized by the allied governments.

A half-century later, the challenge of sifting through successive layers of ownership is enormously complex. There is no comprehensive list of art stolen by the Nazis to which museums can refer. Until the last few years, many of the documents regarding the Nazi misappropriation of cultural treasures were simply unavailable. Locked away in archives, sometimes behind the Iron Curtain, the records that survived the war were not accessible to scholars, art historians, or heirs of Holocaust victims.

Despite the increased interest in this issue, there is still no central repository for archival information. Quite apart from the financial burdens of provenance research, anyone proposing simple solutions should also consider the extraordinary difficulties of trying to trace documents (which may have been lost or destroyed over the years) in archives, libraries, warehouses, offices, and homes all over Europe. If papers exist, they might be written in German, French, Italian, Polish, Dutch, or one of several other languages.

The trail is further complicated because, for countless reasons, many people buying, selling, and lending works of art prefer to remain anonymous. Dealers, acting as middlemen between buyer and seller, often will not divulge the names of their clients. Dealers try to keep clients’ names confidential in order to avoid being cut out of the deal altogether, not because of any sinister purpose. As a result, provenance information like "Private Collection, London" has been perfectly acceptable over the years before and after the Second World War.

The Committee and the public should also be aware that not all of the art lost or looted during the Second World War is immediately identifiable. Multiples like prints and photographs can be impossible to distinguish. One version of a lithograph may have been stolen, while a virtually identical version has pristine provenance. Yet it is often impossible to tell one from the other. I understand that the Nazis listed not particularly important looted artworks as "household goods," providing no more detailed information. For every immediately recognizable masterpiece misappropriated during the war, innumerable less identifiable works went out of sight.

Please do not mistake this candid description of research problems for a reluctance to engage in a thorough analysis of the Museum’s collection. Let me be clear: The Museum of Modern Art is committed to resolving any doubts that may arise about works of art in our collection. And while there have been no claims to date against our collection from this period, in light of the new information becoming available, we have already begun a systematic review of our collection, and we will continue to review our holdings as more information emerges.

In order to illustrate the complexity of the issues involved in this kind of work, let me offer an example of the time and effort that must go into provenance research. The Museum of Modern Art recently acquired a truly great painting, The Window/The Yellow Curtain, by Henri Matisse. At first glance the painting had an impeccable provenance having been in the great French collector Alphonse Kann’s collection before the war. During our research on the painting, however, we learned that it had been confiscated by the Nazis and even appears in a war-time photograph of the Jeu de Paume, the Parisian building used as a repository for looted art by the Nazis. Crestfallen, we ceased to pursue the painting and alerted the dealer to the problem. But this is not the end of the story. For subsequent research revealed that despite being looted, the painting had been restored to Mr. Kann prior to his death, and that he in turn had sold it to a European collector in the 1940s. In order to be sure that this had happened, the Museum contacted the heirs through an intermediary and obtained a letter from them assuring us that all was in order. This process took over a year and a half despite the renown of both the painting and the Kann collection. While this kind of intensive research is standard for all works of art we acquire, I believe that it is the exception rather than the rule to be able to so clearly document the history of such a work of art.

Let me cite another example of art that highlights this issue and also deals with the important question of loans as opposed to works owned by a museum. Just a few weeks ago, on New Year’s Eve, The Museum of Modern Art received letters from two families claiming to be the rightful heirs of two different paintings by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. We had borrowed both paintings from a foundation financed by the Austrian government, and had exhibited them, along with about 150 others by the same artist, without incident at the Museum for three months. We had no reason to believe that there was any cloud on the paintings’ past. Both of the pictures had been exhibited around the world for decades, and both had been reproduced frequently in books.

The exhibition closed on schedule over a month ago, but the two paintings remain in New York because the Manhattan District Attorney decided to subpoena the museum. As far as I am aware, neither of the families claiming ownership has actually filed suit to obtain the paintings.

From the information recently revealed in the press, it appears that the claim on one painting is based on the belief of two people, both now deceased, who thought themselves to be the sole heir of the pre-war owner. According to the following story recently published in the Austrian press, when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, a Viennese man named Fritz Grunbaum owned the painting called Dead City III.
Mr. Grunbaum died in a concentration camp, and his wife apparently did not survive
the war. After the war, the sister of Mr. Grunbaum’s wife endeavored to have herself declared his sole legitimate heir, and took title to the painting Dead City III, as well as his other personal property. The sister-in-law later sold the painting to a gallery in Switzerland. Through various owners, including a gallery in New York City, it ended up being bought by the Austrian government on behalf of the Leopold Foundation.

After three months at the Museum, during which time the picture was seen by hundreds of thousands of people and widely reviewed in the press, a woman in New York and her sister-in-law asserted that they were the true owners of Dead City III, and demanded that the Museum give it to them. I met with the woman in order to discuss her claim. Her claim is based on the fact that her late husband’s father’s cousin was Fritz Grunbaum, the pre-war owner. Apparently, her husband had obtained a German document in 1965 declaring him the heir to Fritz Grunbaum, long after Mr. Grunbaum’s sister-in-law had sold the painting through the Swiss gallery.

I mention this example not to discuss the merits of the claim, but to explain how very murky such claims can be. In this instance, the Museum borrowed the art. Whatever logistical and financial difficulties exist for examining one’s own collection are multiplied for loans. There is no effective way to determine the provenance of, in this case, 152 works of art arriving for a three month loan. And even if a person were able to establish that one of the borrowed works were his, it is certainly not for a borrowing art museum to adjudicate the claim.

The District Attorney’s action in barring the paintings from returning to the lender has the potential of seriously affecting the future of art loans in the United States. Unless we can assure lenders that works of art loaned to American museums will be returned to them, they will simply not lend fearing the arbitrary seizure of their artwork. That would be a disaster for the American public, which has come to expect first class exhibitions at art institutions across the country. It is for this very reason that there is a Federal Immunity from Seizure Statute and New York State has its own immunity statutes. It would also be counter-productive to the open display of works of art that is so critical for learning about where works of art are located for potential claimants.

It is equally important to satisfactorily resolve ownership issues. It is precisely because of our deep sense of moral obligation to the past, and our commitment to fulfilling our responsibility to the public we serve, that the Association of Art Museum Directors has called for the creation of an appropriate process for resolving all claims relating to art looted by Nazis. Several groups and individuals are already doing important work to generate the data required to resolve these questions. And we will also contribute our own collective resources to that effort. Beyond that, however, we believe that the interests of all concerned, and particularly victims and heirs who have waited so long, would be best served by a process specifically dedicated to these questions, which could act with speed and impartiality, and without the excessive costs often associated with litigation.

I hope that my comments have outlined some of the issues involved in the restitution of art looted by the Nazis of art. I want to assure the members of this Committee that American art museums understand the importance of dealing appropriately with any stolen material, and we are particularly sensitive to the issues of art stolen during the Nazi period. American museums have set international standards for the quality of their collections and programs as well as the probity of their policies. We will not countenance the acquisition or display of stolen art, and we are committed to doing everything possible to ensure that our collections are untainted by the stigma of the Nazi past.



 

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