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United States House of Representatives

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TESTIMONY BEFORE THE HOUSE BANKING & FINANCIAL
SERVICES COMMITTEE
BY PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO, DIRECTOR,
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART,
WASHINGTON, FEBRUARY 12, 1998

Thank-you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee, for the opportunity to testify before you today on an issue of deep concern to all of us -- museum directors, museum goers, lawmakers, and of course the victims of the brutal genocide of the Holocaust. It is a deeply disturbing aspect of an immense human tragedy that art -- which has given so many people so much pleasure -- could also have been a source of so much pain for those who treasured it and were ruthlessly and lawlessly deprived of it.

My name is Philippe de Montebello, and I serve as Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As you probably can tell from the way I’m told that I speak, I was not born in the neighborhood of the Museum where I have worked for nearly my entire professional life. I was born in France, in 1936. Actually, some of my most vivid early childhood memories involve running -- keeping one step ahead of the Gestapo and the Vichy government with a father who was serving in the Resistance. So I do know well, at least as a close-hand observer, the oppression that accompanies tyranny. Happily, I came to the United States while still a teen-ager, attended school and college here, married an American, even served as an artilleryman in the American army. I have been Director of the Metropolitan for 21 years -- and the museum, as you know, is the largest in the Western Hemisphere -- with more than two million works of art from every part of the world, representing five millennia of the very best of human creativity.

The primary mission of the Metropolitan, as a public art museum, is to collect, conserve, and exhibit original works of art, and to make these collections accessible to the broadest possible public. Above all, the museum has a stewardship function: it preserves these great works of art on behalf of all people. And it has an educational function as well: to provide programs, activities, and publications that help visitors to learn about and appreciate the collections and exhibitions.

Why is this important? Because works of art are the tangible manifestations of the highest aspirations of mankind and, to paraphrase the historian Arnold Toynbee, provide the most perfect avenue to our understanding of history, civilization, and ultimately, ourselves.

Every year, some five million visitors come to the Metropolitan, from scholars to elementary school students making their first visit to any art museum; from one of the Met’s 100,000 members who return time and time again to see their favorite works, to tourists who have heard of the world-class treasures on display there. What all these visitors see are works that are regularly subjected to the most intensive scholarly scrutiny.

The fact is, as a matter of both policy and routine practice, museums endeavor to conduct research on the history of the ownership of works in their collections. This is an ongoing process to which we bring our energy and our commitment. For us, it is a scholarly obligation. Knowing the full history of the ownership of a work of art increases our understanding of the history of collecting and connoisseurship, of taste, and of society, all of which contribute immeasurably to our understanding of the work of art itself.

The works in the collections are subjected to continuous study and examination, even as they are carefully conserved so that future generations of Americans and visitors from around the world can see them. Important works of art -- by the thousands -- are widely published, reproduced, and frequently exhibited, on our own walls and at museums throughout the world to which we lend on a regular basis. I should add that for the past 50 years, we have listed every acquisition, with the sole exception of prints, in our annual reports, which are broadly disseminated. Works of art are not dormant or hidden assets.

To the extent possible, and within the space constraints that almost every museum must contend with -- we keep the collections fully open to public scrutiny...on public exhibition and, as I mentioned, printed in catalogues, museum journals, and other publications, so they can be viewed and discussed by the widest possible public. I believe that these practices show that there is a major difference between museums which display, publish, and invite dialogue on their collections, and other kinds of institutions, such as banks, which recently have been shown to have hoarded, for half a century, the spoils of war and genocide -- not in the open, as with works of art, but in the darkness of total secrecy. Museums fully understand the nature of their legal and ethical responsibility. We abhor the spoliation of art that occurred during the Holocaust and World War II, and the Metropolitan has always been firmly committed to resolving questions when and if they arise about any such works of art in the collection.

In fact, we have often raised questions ourselves. I would very much like to offer two examples. They serve to illustrate how the Metropolitan and, I dare say, all museums, react when, even after the best efforts have been made to research provenance, subsequently gathered data are uncovered that calls it into question. It has not happened often. But it has happened.

In 1995, for example, a visiting curator was examining two precious, 11th-century illuminated manuscript folios from ancient India, purchased in good faith by the Metropolitan the year before. It struck the curator that the pages closely resembled those he knew from a famous Indian manuscript. There was good reason for the similarity: further research revealed that the pages were the very same. They turned out to have been stolen from the Asiatic Society of Calcutta around 1950, although the Society had been unaware of the theft. The museum’s reaction was swift. We promptly informed the owners of what we had found, and our associate director personally took the pages back to their rightful owners.

I could cite a similar case from 1978, when our curator of Egyptian art discovered that a relief sculpture depicting the king Akhenaten, purchased three years earlier, had recently been published as residing in a storeroom in Karnak, leading to the conclusion that it must have been stolen. Again, we took the initiative, contacting the Egyptian authorities. Again, we returned the object.

As far as World War II is concerned, only two claims have ever been lodged against the Met in the 50 years since the war ended, one by Belgium concerning a 15th-century painting, which the Met purchased at a well-promoted public auction, but which claimants later alleged was stolen from a Brussels collection during the Occupation. The other is a claim, as the Boston Globe has reported, by the descendant of a non-Jewish German national for a Monet painting, given to the Met in 1994, after being widely published for more than 20 years. This picture was allegedly taken by the Russians from Berlin at the end of the war. We are now researching and evaluating both of these claims.

Our willingness to respond to such claims remains unchanged. What has changed, quite dramatically -- and I think it helps explain why we are all here this morning examining the issue of works of art stolen during the World War II era -- is the increasing availability of new documentation that is shedding light on this horrendous chapter of history.

A confluence of new circumstances has focused the spotlight on the issue of art spoliation in World War II. The downfall of Communism, for example, has brought with it the opening of records whose existence was hitherto unknown. The availability of other archives sealed since the war encouraged new research by scholars and journalists such as Hector Feliciano, in his book, The Lost Museum, and Lynn Nicholas, in the equally important, The Rape of Europa, which re-focused global attention on the widespread looting of art by the Nazis. The welcome influence of groups such as the International Foundation for Art Research and the Art Loss Registry has added to public awareness of art thefts. And, finally, the development and proliferation of computerized research and the World Wide Web, are helping to create and disseminate far more data than ever before. In this effort, the Commission for Art Recovery, recently formed by the World Jewish Congress, will, we expect, be of great assistance.

One only expects -- and hopes -- that with time, and as the technology matures, access to this information will grow exponentially. At the Metropolitan Museum, we remain in the rather early stages of the development of our own, internal collections management system, which will give us a computerized data base for the more than two million works of art in the collections -- many of which are still catalogued on their original index cards. The system is being designed, too, to make our collections available to students throughout the country as a resource, an introduction, to the world of art. It is bound to serve many purposes, among them even greater access to information about provenance.

Late last month, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the principal executive association to which my colleagues and I belong, dedicated itself more proactively to the issue of provenance relating to World War II. The Association created a special Task Force, which I chair, and which includes ten other directors from the country’s leading art museums, including those present today: Messrs. Lowry, Wood, and Powell.

You may have read the text of our joint statement, the full text of which I attach to my submission to the Committee, but if I may be permitted, I will quote from one section. "In order to achieve timely resolution of ownership claims relating to art alleged to have been stolen immediately before, during, and immediately after World War II, the Association strongly recommends the creation of a mechanism for the fair resolution of these claims, such as mediation, arbitration, or other forms of alternate dispute resolution...reconciling the interests of individuals or their heirs who were dispossessed of works of art with the complex legal obligations and responsibilities of art museums to the public for whom they hold works of art in trust."

I hope that the full AAMD statement conveys to the members of this Committee that we are also committed to a process of research -- to continued vigilance, and to the enhanced use of new technologies, to access records as they become available.

Speaking for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I want to affirm that we will continue to cooperate and encourage in every possible way these important efforts. Our expectation is that any resulting cases are likely to be rare. After all, our collections have been in the public domain for generations. But, of course, if any case arises -- and even a single case is a serious matter -- we will, as always, address it to the best of our ability.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for allowing me to speak on these matters today.

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(Statement of the Association of Art Museum Directors is attached.)



 

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