A report from two major Holocaust-Looted Art Events in London

Posted on: September 17, 2019 by

London played host earlier this month to two fascinating events relating to Holocaust-looted art and restitution. Both events were packed, truly marking the beginning of a new academic year and the return from summer holidays. IAL attended both events and here is our account of the enlightening discussions which took place.

At the V&A, on September 4th, in the latest of its ‘Gilbert Provenance and Spoliation Research Seminar’ series, Antonia Bartoli, Spoliation Curator at the British Library, was invited to speak on ‘The Nazi Looting of Libraries and Spoliation Research at the British Library’. Antonia gave a fascinating account of the methodology employed by Nazi authorities to loot and plunder an estimated 22 million volumes from thousands of public and private collections in the short period of 1933 to 1945. Whilst many of these volumes were directly destroyed on the spot, for being deemed subversive or contrary to Nazi ideology, many of these survived – albeit unidentified as looted – in collections throughout Europe and the world today.

A volume with a scratched out collector’s mark – Image: A. Bartoli

Unlike visual artworks, such as paintings, where researchers are used to relying on a number of printed sources for information, such as catalogues raisonnés, exhibition and sale catalogues, as well as a wealth of archives such as the Witt Library in London, research efforts are much more challenging when it comes to books, manuscripts and other archival archival documents. This is primarily because these objects are more often than not produced in numbers – think more of prints rather than paintings. Secondly, these objects are often rebound and it is (unfortunately) routine for uniquely identifying marks such as collectors’ marks and ex libris stamps to be removed in this process. As such, more than with any other artworks, the clues to researching books and manuscripts come from the objects themselves and whatever uniquely identifying features have been preserved.

Even then, the work is far from straightforward. Antonia mentioned how cooperation between the various institutions across European countries is fundamental for her research as information is still quite often compartmentalised, in spite of recent efforts for digitisation of records in many institutions. Moreover, the age-old adage of common sense is the golden standard and if gaps in provenance cannot be resolved, especially for the crucial period of 1933 to 1945, the British Library will refrain from acquiring the item. Nonetheless, in spite of so much research being undertaken, the 7 million volumes at the British Library can be – and indeed sometimes are – still vulnerable to restitution claims, which in the case of the BL are usually referred to the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel.

Two evenings later, in an event co-organised by Constantine Cannon and The International Art Market Studies Association (TIAMSA) and hosted by The National Gallery, many of the same faces met again for a major panel discussion titled ‘Nazi-looted art and restitution claims – Milestone Anniversaries: Progress in Practice’. The stimulating discussion included Antonia Bartoli once more, as well as HH Tony Baumgartner (Circuit Court Judge and Deputy Chair of the UK Spoliation Advisory Panel); Evelien Campfens (former General Secretary of the Dutch Restitutions Committee); Stephen W Clark (Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary for the J. Paul Getty Trust); Luis Li (Partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson); James Ratcliffe (General Counsel and Director of Recoveries, Art Loss Register), Jacques Schuhmacher (Provenance and Spoliation Curator at the V&A), and Anne Webber (Founder and Co-chair for the Commission for Looted Art in Europe).

The panellists had an interesting discussion about the dichotomy between the general legal standpoint that the burden of proof lays with the claimant and the increasing moral and social pressure on museums to do the running and demonstrate their innocence instead. Another point discussed was the crucial role of restitutions committees and advisory panels in resolving these matters, as they are independent and unbiased institutions who benefit from the trust of the general public as well as other players in the art market to resolve matters expediently and fairly, in comparison with lengthy and costly court disputes.

The matter of cost was also raised in relation to provenance research. Whilst the general perception is that, in our digital age, this is mainly a desk-based process, in truth, it is often quite the opposite: Expensive and time-consuming trips to archives are required, numerous individuals and institutions need to be involved and painstaking research is warranted. Such a task is a challenge even for larger institutions and its demands can prove prohibitive for smaller ones with fewer resources at their disposal. Both of the spoliation curators on the panel raised the point that their posts are funded through external sources.

The discussion then shifted to international matters. It was particularly interesting to have a US perspective, since, owing mainly to differences in laws as to limitation, it has been possible for claimants in Nazi-looted art cases to ‘have their day in court’ in the US (generally denied to them in Europe since their legal claims are almost always time-barred). Whilst the US lawyers on the panel didn’t identify a tension between the law and ethics as far as the US cases they discussed were concerned, the issue of inconsistency of approach more generally was a matter of concern raised by a number of panellists. Currently, restitution committees exist in only five countries, and function completely independently from one another, with little consistency in approach, in some cases, on rather fundamental matters such as the definition of Nazi-looted art. This only highlights at an international level how much work remains to be done so many years after the end of the Second World War. Holocaust-related claims show no signs of abating and the art market and art transactions are increasingly international and inter-jurisdictional. Undoubtedly, then, the issues highlighted in these two seminars will continue to be discussed for many years to come.

Looking ahead, there are a number of upcoming events in London relating to Holocaust-looted art for those who are interested in this field, including a groundbreaking exhibition at the V&A that will reunite surviving families with Nazi-looted art in the museum’s collection, a free display set to open on December 5th and curated by the museum’s own provenance research expert, Jacques Schuhmacher (see above) together with Alice Minter, Curator of the Gilbert Collection.