Web Helps People Recover Plundered Art

One area where provenance standards have certainly changed over the last decade concerns art stolen by Nazis, often from Jewish families, in the years leading up to and during World War II.

Several Internet portals now exist that provide searchable registries of objects in museum collections that changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era. Many museums link to these registries on their Web sites or list on their own sites artworks with gaps in ownership.

Last year, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts returned to Poland a 16th-century Flemish painting seized by Germans during the war.

A museum official, doing provenance research on works in the collection that may have been in Europe between 1933 and 1945, found Jan Mostaert’s “Portrait of a Courtier” on a catalog of wartime losses listed on the Polish embassy’s Web site.

But not all cases related to wartime looting are handled as smoothly.

Maria Altmann fought a seven-year legal battle to recover five paintings by Gustav Klimt stolen from her family by Nazis in 1938 that eventually ended up in an Austrian government gallery. They including an oil and gold-encrusted portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The works were returned to the 90-year-old Los Angeles woman earlier this year, and Austrian officials said they are developing a Web site to help owners track down works they claim were confiscated by the Nazi regime.

Meanwhile, Florida resident Peter Sachs is trying to recover from a German history museum thousands of posters taken from his father by the Gestapo in 1938. Museum officials say Hans Sachs was compensated for his loss more than 40 years ago; his son said he does not think the Germans have any ownership claim “considering the circumstances under which they were stolen.”

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has about 40 artworks listed on Holocaust-era art portals, said chief curator Joseph Dye. That doesn’t mean all are suspect, just that there are records missing or gaps in ownership.

Dye said his museum “steers clear” of any objects without airtight provenance records.

“That’s always been the policy here, but it’s probably more acutely felt because of the Getty (Museum in Los Angeles) and the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and so forth,” he said. “In our case, there are so many works of art with good provenance, there’s no reason to take a risk like that.”

Dye said that while it was somewhat hard to say goodbye to Mostaert’s painting, which had been in its collection since 1952, the museum is happy it is now with the rightful heirs, at the Princes Czartoryski Museum in Krakow.

“We’re all temporary owners of these objects – museums, art collectors,” he said. “The question of ownership is an important one but ultimately we’re saving these works of art for the future. They’ll last until infinity, hopefully. It’s part of our job as museum curators to be temporary custodians.”

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