Skip Navigation

Committee on Financial Services

United States House of Representatives

Archive Press Releases

I am testifying today in two interrelated capacities: as the Director and Curator of the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, and as the Chairman of the Museum's Holocaust Art restitution Project. 

The two roles intimately inter-connect. The National Jewish Museum covers the 4,000 year sweep of Jewish history and culture, in its interphase with the cultures and civilizations where Jews have been, from antiquity to the present. Our permanent collections, changing temporary exhibitions and array of programs focus on art, history and ethnography, and always ask the same essential questions: "what is Jewish about this?" and "how does this narrative -- be it of abstract late twentieth century painting or the history of Tunisia -- connect the Jewish to the non-Jewish world in what simple or complex patterns of influence and counter-influence?"

One of the consequences of these concerns was the Museum's initiative in September, 1997, of hosting a large panel discussion on the Legal and Moral Implications of Art Restitution. While the discussion was broad, it inevitably came to focus most fully on World War II and the Holocaust. And it was in the context of both organizing the panel and considering the specific and enormous subject of art spoliation and restitution in the Holocaust context -- and in recognizing that this issue is sui generis (that the systematic and comprehensive devotion of the Nazi regime to art spoliation dwarfs any and all such acts in the long history of war looting) and hugely significant, even half a century after the Catastrophe -- that I eagerly acceded to the request of my colleagues, Marc Masurovsky and Willi Korte, to undertake the Holocaust Art Restitution Project as an initiative of the National Jewish Museum.

The Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) was thus established in September, 1997 by the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in the context of the conference organized by the Museum. Its purpose is four-fold:

* to record and document all Jewish cultural losses at the hands of the Nazi government and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945;

* to computerize these data into a rugged state-of-the-art database which will be on-line and available for anyone to consult its contents;

* to produce exhibits pertaining to spoliated collections and their collectors; and

* to publish accompanying monographs focused on Jewish collections, their developments prior to and their dispersal during and after the Second World War.

The database will bring under one roof information needed to reconstruct the Jewish cultural contribution to European life and modernity in the twentieth century, provide greater understanding of the extent of the Nazi depredations against a centerpiece of Jewish life -- art and aesthetics -- and trace the sinuous and tortured paths of dispersal of many of these works of art, on canvas, on paper, as well as rare books, manuscripts and religious items dear to the Jewish faith. Its purpose is to produce a fully, instantly searchable, worldwide electronic archive of heretofore unseen documents pertaining to Jewish cultural losses in Europe between 1933 and 1945.

One of the unique features of the proposed HARP database will be its ability to track primary source documents. As the database grows, so will the repository of HARP-specific documents and the electronic archiving of so-called non-focused source materials that address contemporaneous facts about the spoliations, the fate of Jewish collections, and other illustrations of Nazi assaults on Jewish culture (who knew what, when, where, why, and how?).

Simply put: the kind of research in which HARP is engaged, means that questions of ownership history during the 1933-1945 era, with respect to works in both the permanent collections of our museums and the loan exhibitions which we all seek, will not be as difficult to answer as they might have been in the past -- certainly far less difficult and expensive than the legal proceedings that follow some accusation of holding a Holocaust-looted artwork, either permanently or temporarily.

The results of HARP's efforts are likely to be a primary source for the World Jewish Congress' Art Recovery Project, established a week after the establishment of HARP. The two organizations have held substantive and very cordial discussions in the last several weeks -- and contrary to what has been suggested in some corners of the press, we anticipate a productive complementary working relationship. That relationship will also include the efforts towards publishing documentary reports on this entire issue by the newly forming International Research Center for the Documentation of Wartime Losses, as it complements the efforts of organizations such as the Society to Prevent Trade in Stolen Art (STOP), Trans-art International and the Art Loss Registry.

If HARP's database and publication ambitions impinge on the rectifying of our understanding of the past, other organizations, and HARP itself with respect to its intended exhibitions program, relate past to present and future.

For each of these organizations will, in different ways, be useful in addressing what is at issue: both the exploration of the past, and, in the context of a congressional committee such as this, the shaping of laws that will help prevent art theft and art fencing in the future -- whether the art is specific to Holocaust-era spoliation or not.

And with the growing volume of unresolved cases in which Holocaust victims, having been dispossessed of livelihood, normative patterns of living and, in many cases, the lives of loved ones; having had to reconstruct their lives under enormously difficult conditions; having learned that artworks which are the only unaltered tangible tie to their pre-war lives and the family members destroyed by that war, are in the possession of public institutions or private collectors; and find themselves in the unbearably ironic position of being denied restitution of such works -- moral and legal questions interweave each other and require address, however unsimple that may be.

Restitution generally is denied on either complex legal or difficult moral grounds, or both. Thus a museum may claim, for example, that the chain of ownership that led to the work's presence in its collections is either too difficult to retrace; or that the museum itself, or the owner, who donated it to the museum, acquired the work in good faith. It may assert that there are two victims: the one from whom work was stolen and the last in the chain of ownership -- be it an individual donor to the museum or the museum itself -- who was "duped". With respect to examining its collections toward identifying works which were, or may have been, looted, a museum may assert that this is too difficult or expensive. With regard to borrowed exhibitions in which looted works appear, either without their ownership history being appropriately noted, or without clarity as to whether the current ownership is legitimate or not -- ie that the works may have been improperly acquired by the current collector or his representatives -- the museum may assert that its purpose is the bringing of great art before the pubic, not the inquiry into such historical matters.

Museums, galleries, auction houses, dealers, collectors may all assert that the shaping of legislation that would either require the kind of due diligence with respect to purchase that is required of a would-be home-buyer or car-purchaser would be an inappropriate invasion of the art realm by non-experts in that realm, or that it would yield unfairly expensive obligations for members of that realm. Some museums seem thus to claim that because we deal with precious works of fine art, the usual rules of a civilized society must somehow be suspended for the greater good that staging exhibitions represents to the cultural and economic health of the community that they serve.

Intervention by the law with respect to artworks of questionable ownership where a loan exhibition is concerned, we may be told, will undermine the flow of such exhibitions, with a deleterious effect not only as far as the cultural life of our communities are concerned, but with respect to the economies of our communities, which benefit from the income generated from the tourists who flock to see this or that great collection on display at this or that museum.

All of these are troubling arguments.

The argument that there may be two equally situated victims is ultimately a false one, for the following clear reason. Whether a Holocaust victim whose art was stolen or who was forced into a bargain-basement-price sale -- or whether any victim of theft -- such a victim had no choices or options. But every buyer, and certainly every museum as buyer or receiver of donations, is free to accept or refuse, to inquire or not to inquire about ownership provenance. That our desire to see our collections grow can and sometimes has led to ignoring these options is both an unfortunate and well-documented historical fact and an ironic contradiction of how in every other respect we museums operate: by definition, we want to know everything that we can about a given work of art!

Moreover, the notion that legislative intervention in the matter of art acquisition for purchase or loan will ruin or greatly curtail the ability of American museums to obtain loan exhibitions from lenders of fine arts both domestically and internationally is poppycock.

There is no shortage of owners of fine art, both personal and institutional, who are willing to loan works of art to museums and other not-for-profit organizations. This is particularly true where internationally renowned institutions, who are the ones most likely to be affected and to defend their territory in this matter, are concerned. Owners of fine art aspire to have their collections exhibited at such institutions. The reason is simple: exhibition at known and respected museums increases the value of the artworks loaned by its owners. The recognition conferred by exhibiting at the best known and most respected institutions greatly enhances the stature and value of any collection.

With legal scrutiny a possibility or an obligation, the only reason for institutional or private owners to refuse to lend their art works to museums is that they fear that the works have been obtained in a less than above-board manner. An owner with confidence in the provenance of his holdings will not hesitate to lend out of such fear. Even in Switzerland -- which has been so much the focus of negative publicity in the related matter of gold, during the past year and more -- the Swiss Federal Supreme Court recently ruled against the acquirer in the matter of a painting which had originally been stolen and resold in 1944 -- on the grounds that due diligence had not been followed by him.

My point is that a broad atmosphere of responsibility affects everybody towards due diligent responsibility; it doesn't destroy the flow of art. At most, the concern about possible legal action, should a work be found wanting as to its ownership/acquisition record, will slow things somewhat, since museums, galleries and individual collectors may wish to undertake an examination to insure that their holdings are, in fact, legitimately owned. But surely this is a desirable result for this issue. Indeed, public policy should prescribe that owners of art, like owners of other commodities, be required to assure themselves and others that their possession is legitimate and lawful.

For whatever else it may be, art is also a commodity, and commerce in the art world will not be stopped by the occasional investigation any more so than commerce is stopped by an investigation in any other industry. Raising questions about the provenance of a number of paintings or drawings will not, in the end, stop the flow of commerce in art, whether it be in lending or purchasing, because business is business. This is not cynicism, but rather a recognition that in today's environment, art is too important to the economies and cultures of the world to be halted by any particular incident.

The very arguments some colleagues put forth -- that the great economic gain to our communities provided by the flow of exhibitions would be disturbed -- is its own counter-argument: it is because of the economic gains of all parties involved, on both the lending and the borrowing sides, that little will ultimately obstruct that relationship. Indeed, we would not be here having this discussion, were this not true: the art market proceeded at a breakneck pace while a million children and 10 million adults were being destroyed, half a century ago. The art market hasn't changed anymore than art-making has changed as ongoing human impulses.

In short, legislative intervention requiring due diligence in owner exchanges of art, or creating a commission of arbitration in matters of competing ownership claims in the context of spoliation issues, will only mean that the art world will abide by the standards imposed on the rest of society to insure that collectors and lenders are not trafficking in stolen property. This should come not as a threat, but as a relief to the Museum community.

Finally, then, I am distressed by the notion that there is no place for history and morality in this discussion; that the mounting of exhibits of great art is somehow a responsibility that causes other responsibilities to lose their importance. Museums and other cultural institutions, while necessarily involved in commerce, should be -- and claim to be, I believe -- concerned with issues that transcend commerce.

Such institutions which immeasurably enliven and uplift the human spirit should not be heard to say that the mere inconvenience of insuring the legitimate provenance of works that we display must override the moral and ethical considerations raised by questions of the works' ownership history. All aspects of the history of a work of art are our concern -- we who were presumably trained not only in the aesthetics of style but in the kind of connoisseurship that distinguishes different versions of the same subject, real works from fakes, and includes, in the context of this discussion, the history of who has owned them.

Museums must be in the forefront of confronting such issues and insuring the moral, ethical and legal legitimacy of the works that we own and that we borrow for exhibition. How else can we assert that we are sources of civilized values, preservers of human culture and educators of our public? Moreover, our audience should take offence at the notion that the benefits to the economy represented by exhibiting works of questioned provenance should outweigh the law against possessing stolen property. We, in the art world and in the community should be better than that. And I believe that we are.

Ori Z Soltes


E-mail Updates

Sign up to get e-mail updates from the Committee

Committee on Financial Services  •  2129 Rayburn House Office Building  •  Washington, DC 20515  •  (202) 225-7502
For Press Inquiries: (202) 226-0471