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Committee on Financial Services

United States House of Representatives

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Comments to the Committee on Banking
U.S. House of Representatives
February 12, 1998
James N. Wood, Director and President
The Art Institute of Chicago

Mr. Chairman, and distinguished members of the Banking Committee, on behalf of The Art Institute of Chicago I would like to thank Chairman Leach and the Committee for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of one of the most pressing and difficult questions facing American art museums today. The trustees and staff of the Art Institute deplore the systematic and unlawful confiscation of art, which remains one of the most vexing and unresolved legacies of the Holocaust and the Second World War.

The acquisition policies of the Art Institute are longstanding and unequivocal. They state that no object that has been stolen, removed in contravention of treaties and international conventions to which the United States is a signatory, or illegally imported into the United States, may be acquired. We have no claims against a work in our collections; however, should such questions arise, our standing policies would guide us in how to address them.

The question of the history of ownership of works of art is an extremely complex and difficult issue. I say this with confidence and humility because we have spent years, considerable financial resources, and much of our professional staff's time, researching our collections. The Art Institute contains over one-quarter-million works of art ranging from monumental altar pieces that were once the integral parts of vast religious structures, to exquisite coins that could easily be transported in the palm of one's hand. They have been acquired through gift and purchase over the past one hundred years, and only a small fraction of the total were created within the present-day United States. I note this to stress the obvious. We are a young nation. The collections of America's greatest art museums, just as the rich diversity of its population, have been repeatedly enriched by import and immigration from abroad. The result is that our museums have the most varied and comprehensive collections of any in the world.

The research and cataloguing of our collections is a central, if little understood, activity of our staff. To look at one specific area of the collections, after nearly two decades of work by our curators and outside researchers, we have catalogued approximately twenty percent of our European paintings. The recently completed catalogue on our early Italian paintings took over four years to document approximately ninety works. Furthermore, until recently, provenance efforts have tended to emphasize the earliest history of a picture more than its recent past because this was deemed crucial in tracing lost ensembles, establishing the authenticity or prestige of a work, and determining what changes in condition and appearance it may have undergone. Clearly, our current and future efforts must focus more intensely and critically on the recent past.

This research, and the publications which have resulted from it, have both added immeasurably to our knowledge and confirmed its limits. Scholarly research and, particularly, the establishment of the history of prior ownership is not a science. While our goal is to assemble the facts, we are frequently dependent on inconclusive documents and secondary sources. Just as with our efforts to determine the authenticity of a work of art, absolute verification is elusive -- most art is portable, and clearly documented transactions tend to be the exception rather than the rule. By contrast, the title search on a piece of real estate benefits from a longstanding tradition of documentation and the fact that, regardless of how often ownership changes, the land does not move.

Finally, the vast archives that have become available in the post-cold war period both provide an invaluable source of new information, and throw into question the conclusions of past scholars. While it has been more than half a century since the conclusion of World War II, it is only within the past several years that we have gained access to information that will be fundamental to establishing the provenance of works that changed hands during this period. We owe much to such independent scholars as Lynn Nicholas and Hector Feliciano for the information they have uncovered and the example they have set for scholars within our own museums. Simultaneously, we must not lose sight of a fundamental fact -- that museums collect to make art public and to put it to an educational purpose. They are a source of information that by their very nature should enable more claims to come to light. We acquire art to display it in galleries, not to hide it in vaults. Museums make visible and understood what can often be invisible and unknown. Public exhibition and widely dispersed publication is a major source of knowledge about the whereabouts of art. This constant addition of works to the public and international marketplace of ideas and images is a fundamental contribution toward the recovery of stolen art works, particularly when combined with the fact that American law and our judicial system make this country among the most sympathetic in the world to the claims of those trying to recover stolen property.

Similarly, special exhibitions of loaned works of art have not only been a tremendous addition to the cultural lives of Americans of all ages, but an invaluable source of new information. Taken together, the exhibitions of the past two decades and their accompanying catalogues have not only provided pleasure and nourishment for a broad public, but have also been the vehicle for much of the finest recent scholarship of art historians.. The free flow of information and knowledge is the ally of restitution and the first step to awareness and eventual recovery. It is no coincidence that a number of the cases currently pending came to light as a result of works being included in loan exhibitions and their publications.

The Art Institute, in its own policies and actions, and in conjunction with the member museums of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), will respond professionally and sympathetically to any concerns regarding our collections and exhibitions. We are sensitive to the outrages suffered by the victims of Nazi art theft, and to the rights of their heirs to legitimate claims for the restitution of stolen art. Experience is teaching us that each situation is the result of unique human and legal circumstances that must be reconciled with our responsibilities to the public for whom we hold these works in trust. We accept the mandate to redouble our efforts to determine the fullest possible history of the works in our possession, to insure that claims of lawful ownership are rightful and fact-based, and to make restitution where appropriate.

The twelve years of the Nazi era witnessed the greatest displacement of art in history. The holes in our knowledge are so gaping, and the personal tragedies so sensitive, that there are clearly no easy solutions. In my opinion, what is most needed at this highly charged moment is a means to deal in a non-confrontational way with each individual situation on a case-by-case basis. We need not only increased research, but also the means for disseminating its findings, and a mechanism for the fair resolution of claims. An essential step toward achieving this goal would be the strengthening and consolidation of data banks, capable of being updated continually and widely accessible. We are ready and willing to dedicate the manpower and resources to new research, but we need more focus with regard to what we are looking for.

The first step is to increase our knowledge of the facts and create a forum in which they can be objectively discussed. The question of restitution and compensation also needs careful study to determine what precedents exist and what remedies may be appropriate. I look forward to my role as a member of the AAMD task force to explore what these remedies might be.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for this opportunity to share my concerns.

 



 

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