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National Gallery of Art 


Statement by Mr. Earl A. Powell III, Director of the National Gallery of Art, to the Committee on Banking and Financial Services, United States House of Representatives, February 12, 1998.


Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. As many of you may know, the National Gallery of Art was established by a Joint Resolution of Congress in 1937, as a result of a gift to the nation from Andrew W. Mellon. As provided in the Joint Resolution, the Gallery is supported in its maintenance and operations with annual Federal appropriations. All works in the Gallery's collection, as well as its two landmark buildings, have been given by private donation. It is considered one of the world's finest collections of Western achievements in painting, sculpture, and works on paper of European art from the Middle Ages to the present and of American art from Colonial times to the present. From its beginning, the National Gallery has served the country by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, interpreting, and encouraging the understanding of great works of art. The Gallery welcomed over 5.5 million visitors last year, reflecting constituencies from every state and territory, as well as more than eighty foreign countries.

I would like to thank you for this opportunity to meet with the Committee to discuss the important subject of restitution of works of art seized during the Third Reich. We join our museum colleagues in expressing our profound concern for the victims whose artistic treasures were pillaged during the Holocaust. The National Gallery has been involved since the end of World War II with the international effort to recover the looted works. On June 23, 1943, President Roosevelt established the Roberts Commission to promote the preservation of cultural properties and to protect Europe's treasures in war-ravaged areas. An independent presidential commission, it was headquartered at the National Gallery and several Gallery officials as well as those from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions served on this Commission. The Commission promoted the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section of the U.S. Army in post-war Germany which, among other things, established "collecting points" where art objects retrieved from the Nazis could be inventoried and protected before their restitution.

Certain records of these and other restitution activities are available for research at the National Gallery Archives. For example, copies of the glass slides and gelatin negatives of the roughly 60,000 works of art in one of the Army collecting points, called the "Munich Collecting Point," are available for research in our Photo Archives. As a matter of interest to the Committee, your recent witness, the historian and author, Lynn Nicholas, spent time in our archives while researching her book, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. The last several years have brought forth an extraordinary amount of new scholarship regarding the fate of many cultural treasures during and after this terrible period. But more is needed and we are hopeful that new revelations will shed further--and much needed--scholarly light on this subject.

The National Gallery, along with other museum directors, is participating in the Association of Art Museum Directors' Task Force dedicated to finding solutions to these complex problems. We welcome the opportunity to join with our colleagues in the museum community to explore ways of continuing restitution as new information becomes available.

The National Gallery follows the practice of American art museums of publishing annually a list of all acquisitions. In addition, the Gallery has undertaken an extensive project, which began over a decade ago and which will take years to complete, of the publication of a projected thirty-volume detailed systematic catalogue of its entire collection. Each volume, written by Gallery curators or other scholars, is devoted to a particular school of painting, sculpture or decorative arts area with comprehensive, scholarly essays on each work articulating the history, style, content, and context with technical notes and artist biographies, summarizing and expanding upon the literature in the field. Ten of these volumes have been published, three more will come out in 1998, and the other volumes are in progress. Additionally, research on works of art in the Gallery's collection is often available in special exhibition catalogues. As all of this new scholarly research is published, the details regarding the history of ownership, or provenance, are added to our curatorial records which are open to researchers. In an effort to make as much information as possible available to the public around the world, the National Gallery launched its World Wide Web site a year ago. A cornerstone of the site is the collection section, which contains detailed provenance information on thousands of works of art in the National Gallery collection.

In similar vein, we practice the same care as other museums in the acquisition of new works of art. We seek full provenance details including export licenses where required and ask for a warranty of title when purchasing art. Where a question is raised, we will consult the Art Loss Registry. Despite these precautions, it is not uncommon for there to be gaps in the recorded provenance of works of art which could well cover a long period of time. For example, when a work of art has been sold at auction or through a dealer, a previous owner's name may have been withheld for any number of legitimate reasons.

In the case of art looted by the Nazis, the picture is further complicated by the fact that through the efforts of the allied governments, and the courts, many such stolen works were returned to their legitimate owners. Records of these returns, many of which are held by foreign governments, are often not easily available.

We are pressing on in our efforts to complete as thoroughly as possible any additional provenance research that appears necessary. But this is a costly and time consuming task. At this time, Mr. Chairman, I can assure you that we have not received a single claim against any work of art in the Gallery's collection, but if we did, it would be given our fullest attention. In closing, I would like to thank you and the Committee for this opportunity to discuss these important issues with the Committee.


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