Plunder and Provenance

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For more than sixty years, all ruth Haller had of her father's extensive modern art collection were distant memories. Ismar Littmann died in 1934, and Haller had long assumed that details of the 6,000 works that graced the German-Jewish family's home in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) had perished with him. Then, in 1995, two hand-written inventories surfaced at her late brother's home in Texas. Since then, Haller, 83, and her husband Chaim, 80, who live in Israel, have undertaken painstaking research, correspondence and travel in their attempts to track down the lost works. She and two nieces have even filed a lawsuit in the U.S. alleging that her brother illegally sold parts of the collection, which under German law should have been divided equally among Littmann's four children. Just last year, Haller finally succeeded in reclaiming the first of her father's missing treasures — a painting by Otto Mueller — from a gallery in the northern German city of Emden.

Holocaust survivors like Haller may no longer have to go to such extraordinary lengths to lay claim to their families' cherished possessions. A recent flurry of activity on both sides of the Atlantic promises to facilitate the search for artworks that were looted during the Nazi era. In just the last few months, more than two dozen leading museums and galleries have published detailed information about items in their collections whose chain of ownership during and after World War II is unclear. At the national government level, there has also been a renewed push to resolve the convoluted legacy of Nazi Germany's systematic plunder of valuables from its victims.

One catalyst for this latest attempt to make redress was the decision by British curators to publish information on works in their collections that have an uncertain wartime provenance. In late February, the U.K. National Museum Directors' Conference, which includes leading institutions like the National Gallery, the British Museum and the Tate Gallery, released a list of more than 350 such paintings. Tate director Nicholas Serota, who chairs the conference, stressed at the time that "the inclusion of a work on the list does not mean that there is any reason to believe that it was wrongfully taken." However benign the possible explanation for gaps in an item's provenance, the list's Internet posting (www.nationalmuseums.org.uk) prompted frenzied commentary. Critics faulted the museums for not being aggressive enough in identifying and helping potential claimants, while advocacy groups like the World Jewish Congress asked why American institutions had not taken similar steps. A little over a month later, a number of U.S. museums, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org), followed suit with Web postings of their own.

Last month the German government unveiled its own online database (www.lostart.de) of thousands of items with suspect provenance. "We want to make the stock as transparent as possible so that research by and for claimants becomes easier," says Culture Minister Michael Naumann, who began the project. The French government has also turned its attention to the lingering legacy of Nazi-era plunder. After three years of investigation, a government panel last month produced a 3,000-page report which estimated the total cost of the "economic spoliation" of French Jews under the Vichy regime at more than $1.2 billion. The commission reported that of the more than 100,000 art objects looted from Jewish families, only 61,233 were returned to France after the war. Some 2,000 of these works are now in French museums. The commission recommends that those items conclusively shown to be unclaimed be left where they are. Before that can happen, however, an exhaustive search for possible owners would have to be mounted.

"We're beginning to put the onus where it belongs, which is on the museums and those in possession of these works," says Anne Webber of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which recently helped secure the first restitution of a looted work on display in Britain. In March, a piece on loan to the Royal Academy from the Bavarian State Collections was returned to the children of the Von Gotthilf family of Vienna. Marietta and Ernest Glanville, as the family is now known, are in their 70s, but have vivid memories of The Three Stages of Life, a huge triptych which hung in the family dining room. "It is an icon of our childhood," Marietta Glanville says.

Despite happy ending stories like the Glanvilles', Webber cautions that "all this is coming too late for a large number of people." The advanced age of Holocaust survivors has provided an impetus for the resolution of World War II-era slave labor claims and other outstanding matters like seized bank accounts and unpaid life insurance policies, but the restitution of looted art has proved much more difficult. Unlike the money at issue in those cases, art claims pertain to irreplaceable items and require a unique approach, says Willi Korte, the leading investigator in this field. "My cases are each handmade," he says. "I can't simply file a class action suit and seek a settlement."

The scale of the problem lies in the Third Reich's success at amassing works of art from the territories that fell under German domination, although art as war booty was hardly a Nazi innovation. "There are museum directors in Munich who are still sore about the Swedes taking things during the Thirty Years' War," Korte says, only half jokingly. But the extent to which the ruthlessly efficient governmental apparatus of the Third Reich was used to target Jewish owners and orchestrate the seizure or forced sale of their belongings was unprecedented.

Hitler planned a grandiose museum celebrating Germanic culture in the Austrian city of Linz and marshaled the full resources of the Nazi war machine to fill it. What distinguished the Nazis' plunder of art, says Jonathan Petropoulos, author of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World of Nazi Germany, "was the fact that it was so closely linked to the genocidal program. Art looting has existed for millennia. There are other cases of massive spoliation. But in those cases it was not part of the extermination of the population, as in the Third Reich, where theft preceded deportation and deportation led to murder."

As devastating as their policies were, the Nazis weren't the only ones plundering during World War II. When victorious Soviet troops advanced through Europe in 1944-45 they also seized hundreds of thousands of works of art and millions of books and archives. Just two weeks ago, the lower house of the Russian parliament unanimously passed a bill allowing Moscow to keep treasures looted from Nazi Germany and other Axis countries. The law, which reflects the enduring conviction of most Russians that wartime booty is a justifiable reparation for their country's suffering at Nazi Germany's hands, does not apply to objects stolen by private individuals.

This loophole made possible the recent initiation of the return to Germany of the Bremen Leaves collection of 101 works by such artists as Dürer, Goya and Manet. At an emotional ceremony in St. Petersburg late last month, German Culture Minister Naumann was given a license permitting the collection's export to Germany. In exchange, Naumann presented Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin with two pieces from the fabled Amber Room, which was stripped by Nazi troops from the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, the former imperial residence some 30 km outside St. Petersburg. The priceless panels and ornate furnishings later disappeared and the marble mosaic and chest of drawers which Germany returned surfaced only in recent years in private hands.

Although such a piecemeal approach to looted art restitution leaves no one completely satisfied, Ruth Haller is pragmatic, realizing that of her father's thousands of works, "perhaps we will find another eight or 10 pictures. What is more important is that at long last the world learns about Ismar Littmann and his collection." Such small family truths recall the larger one: as the spotlight on looting and belated restitution intensifies, the world is again being made to remember the extraordinary human tragedy these many beautiful items now represent.

With reporting by Regine Wosnitza/Berlin and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow