If you can ignore human suffering to hold on to something that isn’t yours, you don’t deserve the label (or the tax status) of a philanthropic organization.
l’Acteur, 1904-05, Pablo Picasso, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Nazis seized an estimated 650,000 works of art between 1933 and 1945. There are well over 100,000 items that have not been returned to their rightful owners. Tens of thousands of these works ended up in public collections in the United States.
In 1998, 44 nations created the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, spearheaded by our own State Department. It called for a “just and fair solution” if heirs came forward to reclaim their family’s legacy. Museums also pledged to thoroughly research their acquisitions.
That was twenty years ago. In the meantime, many of our museums have stalled for time, using the classic American defense—the courts—to avoid compliance.
Artillerymen, 1915, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
“Prominent U.S. museums have evaded the restitution of Holocaust-era stolen art to rightful owners and heirs by refusing to resolve claims on their facts and merits and by asserting technical defenses, such as statutes of limitations,” the World Jewish Restitution Organization reportedin 2015.
The city with the highest Jewish population in the world is not Jerusalem, but New York, where 1.5 million Jews make their home. Most are the descendants of Jews who escaped persecution in Europe in the 19th and 20th century. Many are enthusiastic supporters of the arts. Sysco co-founder Herbert Irving and his wife Florence are one example among many. Last year their foundation gave the Metropolitan Museum a cool $80 million.
In February of this year, the heirs of Paul Leffmann lost their suit against the Met for the return of Pablo Picasso’s L’acteur. Leffmann sold it under duress for $13,200 when his family fled Cologne in 1938. It is now worth an estimated $100 million.
“The Leffmanns would not have disposed of this seminal work at that time, but for the Nazi and fascist persecution to which they had been, and without doubt would continue to be, subjected,” argued their lawyers. The case is now being appealed.
In October, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announcedit would return Artillerymen by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to the heirs of its original owner. Kirchner, a founding member of Die Brücke, was a seminal figure in Expressionism. He too was a victim of Nazi Germany. Branded a “degenerate,” he ultimately took his own life, but not before he lived to see his entire ouevre confiscated.
The Guggenheim spent two years doing the right thing. They discovered that the painting’s initial attribution was a fabrication. It had in fact been owned by art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who fled Berlin in 1933. It passed to Flechtheim’s niece, Rosi Hulisch. She committed suicide before she was to be shipped to a concentration camp in 1938.
It was then acquired by Dr. Kurt Feldhäusser. After he died in 1945, his mother sent his art collection to New York to be sold. Artillerymen was purchased by MoMA and then traded to the Guggenheim.
Portrait of Tilla Durieux, 1914, Auguste Renoir, courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan hasn’t been nearly as obliging. Among its treasures is the Portrait of Tilla Durieux, painted by an elderly Auguste Renoir. The sitter, a famous actress, took the painting with her when she and her husband fled Berlin in 1933. She survived; he died in Sachsenhausenin 1943. Their heirs claim that the couple sold the painting under duress in 1935 as they scrambled to find a way to leave Europe.
According to the New York Post, the Neue Galerie, Morgan Library and MoMA all hold looted works by Egon Schiele. These were part of a personal collection belonging to Austrian Jewish cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum. Grünbaum owned more than 400 pieces, including eighty by Schiele. A quarter of the collection appeared on the art market in the early 1950s through Swiss art dealer Eberhard W. Kornfeld. The whereabouts of the rest are unknown.
Grünbaum died at Dachau in 1941. His wife, Elisabeth, was forced to surrender the family’s art collection to the Nazis before her transfer to a death camp in 1942.
If you can ignore that kind of suffering to hold on to something that isn’t yours, you don’t deserve the label (or the tax status) of a philanthropic organization.