New York museums have not returned Nazi-seized artFordham Law Alum Raymond Dowd in New York Post, October 08, 2012
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis seized an estimated 650,000 works of art, taking them from Jewish families and grabbing so-called “degenerate” art — including works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and van Gogh — off the walls of German museums. Many of the plundered paintings and other works were destroyed, but others were sold abroad with the cash going back to the Nazi war machine.
It took 50 years, but Jewish families thought they might finally receive some justice for this massive theft.
More than 40 countries gathered in Washington, DC, in 1998 to discuss looted art and sign a set of principles about identifying such work and settling claims.
The United States endorsed a declaration to investigate ownership of work that may have been in Europe during the Nazi era. The principles called for a “just and fair solution” to be reached if pre-war owners came forward to reclaim their art.
Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, pledged that MoMA “does not and will not knowingly exhibit stolen works of art.” MoMA and other New York museums promised to investigate their collections.
More than a decade later, MoMA has returned nothing.
The heirs of German painter George Grosz tried to get three works back but said the museum played dirty, trouncing them on a legal technicality. MoMA successfully claimed the family had filed their 2009 lawsuit too late.
“We had hoped for a settlement and that they would make nice, some kind of an attempt,” said Lilian Grosz, widow of George Grosz’s son. “The big thing was that they hung the whole thing on a date. It was a moral issue for us.”
Today, one of the Grosz paintings, “The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse,” is hanging in the museum’s European painting gallery, but the other two are relegated to storage.
In a final blow, MoMA insisted last year that museum documents obtained by the Grosz family in the lawsuit be returned or destroyed.
Raymond Dowd, the Grosz family lawyer, had hoped to donate the papers to Holocaust museums for future use by scholars in the ongoing quest to right the wrongs of the Nazi era.
“This is perhaps the greatest property crime in human history, and our courts of law are rubber-stamping it for the duplicitous museums who are getting to keep the benefits of Hitler’s crimes and to continue to display stolen art to American schoolchildren,” Dowd said.
MoMA began its “Provenance Research Project” in 2001, finally delving into works that it acquired after 1932 that could have been in Europe during the Nazi era.
Other New York City museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim, Jewish Museum and Brooklyn Museum, started similar research efforts.
The MoMA Web site says it found some 800 works that met the target definition but said the majority “have provenance records that are sufficiently complete to eliminate the likelihood of Nazi misappropriation.”
A museum spokeswoman refused to elaborate on how many works had an incomplete history, insisting, “We have no current information that any of these works has a questionable provenance.”
Yet the museum’s Web site describes at least one piece, an André Derain painting called “Valley of the Lot at Vers” as being seized as “degenerate art” and “sold by the Nazi government.” The museum bought it in 1939 through a gallery owned by a Nazi agent.
The museum maintains the work wasn’t considered stolen because the German museums were state institutions “and the art in them was owned by the German government.”
At the Met, where almost 500 works were said to be in Europe during the Nazi era, the museum has settled five claims and returned six pieces. One settlement allowed it to keep a disputed Monet.
The Brooklyn Museum’s provenance research turned up almost 200 works with Nazi-era ties but said it has received no claims and returned nothing. The Jewish Museum, with about 275 works fitting the time period in question, also said it had no claims.
The Guggenheim, which documents almost 300 works with European ties during the Nazi period, refused to comment on whether it has returned anything.
Museums have lost their sense of urgency in researching Nazi-looted art, according to the Claims Conference, a Manhattan-based organization that seeks restitution for Holocaust survivors and the return of stolen assets.
A 2006 survey by the Claims Conference concluded museums were far from the goal outlined in Washington in 1998 of identifying all art confiscated by the Nazis.
“As the generation of Holocaust survivors slips away, it is urgent that the task of provenance research of items of artwork in US museums rapidly be complete,” the report says.
The survey found that only a small fraction of museums employed a full-time provenance researcher and only one-third had a separate budget for such work.
The Met in 2006 had a part-time researcher on its Nazi-era provenance project, and the Jewish Museum had two staffers on the project “working part-time as schedule allows.”
At MoMA, the initial head researcher for the provenance project was only part-time and left in 2005. It did not appoint a full-time replacement until early 2011.
Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Claims Conference, said museums were turning to the courts to settle claims.
“Things should be judged on their facts and merits,” Fisher said. “There’s a major problem in the US. Instead of pursuing discussions, museums have brought lawsuits using technical legal solutions.”
When Swedish scholar Julius Schoeps came forward in 2007, asking for a Picasso back from MoMA and one from the Guggenheim, the museums joined forces and sued him.
Schoeps claimed the famed paintings belonged to his family and were sold against their will during the Nazi regime. The museums argued that Schoeps had no right to the works.
The legal battle went on until 2009, when a settlement was reached on the morning a trial was to start. The terms of the settlement were secret, but both museums got to keep the paintings.
The Grosz family came forward in 2003 asking for the return of the three paintings in MoMA’s collection.
Grosz, an Expressionist painter and Hitler critic known for his caricatures of German life, fled Nazi Germany in 1933, leaving many of his works in the hands of his Jewish art dealer, Alfred Flechtheim. The dealer left Germany, taking with him several Grosz paintings, which the family maintains he did not own.
Flechtheim died of blood poisoning in London after stepping on a rusty nail. Art dealer Charlotte Weidler claims she inherited the portrait of Max Herrmann-Neisse, which the Grosz family disputes.
It later ended up for sale at the New York City gallery of Curt Valentin. Valentin was a Jew who had been authorized by the Nazis to sell German art in foreign countries, according to scholar Jonathan Petropoulos, an expert witness for the Grosz family.
Valentin sent the money back to Karl Buchholz, a Nazi agent and German gallery owner who passed on the revenue — minus his 25 percent commission — to the Nazi government, Petropoulos said.
“Valentin proceeded to sell hundreds of works purged from German state museums in America,” said Petropoulos, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Valentin was on his own after World War II. In 1952, he sold “The Poet Max Herrmann- Neisse” on behalf of Weidler to MoMA for $750, plus a $100 commission. MoMA founder Alfred Barr was a frequent Valentin patron, according to legal papers. “MoMA appears to have been his best customer,” Petropoulos said. In fact, after Valentin’s death in 1954, his friends donated a Rodin sculpture of the French writer Balzac to MoMA in the art dealer’s memory. It sits prominently in the museum’s lobby.
The other two disputed Grosz paintings were auctioned in 1938 in the Netherlands in what the painter’s descendants maintain was a sham sale. MoMA later bought one and the other was donated to its collection.
After the Grosz family made its initial request to MoMA for the paintings, the museum hired former US Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to investigate the claim.
Katzenbach cited letters Grosz wrote in the 1950s when he described MoMA exhibiting a painting “that was stolen from me” and went on to say “I am powerless against that.”
Katzenbach says the letters were “fatal” to the family’s claim because Grosz stayed silent and never tried to get his paintings back.
“In my opinion the public trust requires the museum to preserve the paintings in its collection and that this is the proper moral and ethical course for the trustees to follow,” Katzenbach wrote.
The Grosz familiy then sued, but MoMA prevailed, arguing that a three-year statute of limitations in bringing such a claim had expired. The Grosz heirs say they have given up their fight.
“We have no desire to reopen it,” Lilian Grosz said. “MoMA has very deep pockets and is a very powerful institution.”
Dowd, the Grosz family lawyer, said the issue goes beyond individual lawsuits. While they pledged to do the right thing, museums have done nothing to actually find the families that have been wronged. The argument that they make is essentially: Well, no one complained.
“They’re hiding the records that show that they have received stolen property and then blaming the victims of the crime,” he said. “Since the crime was a murder of 6 million, it’s a little silly to expect the victims to solve this on their own.”