Nations Called Lax in Returning Art Looted From Jews
The Italian government has long used impassioned pleas, considerable research and international public pressure to support its demands, which were often successful, for the repatriation of its art and antiquities patrimony lost through looting. But in a report published Wednesday, Italy is identified as one of the countries doing the least to research or identify items that may been looted from Jews during World War II.
The report, by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, measures the conduct of nearly 50 countries that endorsed landmark agreements in the last two decades — the Washington Principles and the Terezin Declaration — that pledged greater efforts to return artwork bought or confiscated from Jews during the 1930s and 1940s.
Other countries cited in the report for lackluster efforts included Hungary, Poland, Argentina, Spain and Russia. In the case of Italy, the report said authorities there have not properly reviewed the history of looting perpetrated by the Fascist Mussolini regime. Cultural institutions there, the authors found, have not studied the provenance of art and Judaica they hold, and museums have not followed the recommended practice of posting information on the Internet that tracks the ownership of items that had changed hands during the war and the period leading up to it.
CreditSteve Cannon/Associated Press
“It does not appear that provenance research is taking place in Italy, nor is there a legislative background that would allow for the restitution of cultural and religious properties,” the report says.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Italian culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said the minister began addressing the restitution issue immediately after taking office in February and has asked his staff for a report on what Italy needs to do to accelerate the return of anything held illegally.
“Improving Italy’s standing in the aforementioned report is a concrete commitment that the entire government subscribes to,” said the spokesman, Mattia Morandi.
Much of the art stolen from Jews during the Holocaust is still missing, experts say, and the international agreements were devised, among other things, to ferret out what items were still being held by museums, knowingly or otherwise.
In 1998, 44 countries agreed to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. In 2009, delegates from 47 nations gathering in Prague, in the Czech Republic, renewed their commitment, endorsing the Terezin Declaration on art and Judaica seized or bought under pressure by Germany or its allies and collaborators.
The agreements urged governments and museums to conduct in-depth research to trace ownership of art in collections, then publish their findings and establish fair claims processes to help return works that had been stolen.
But years later, the report found, the spirit of the conferences is flagging. It placed only about one-third of the countries that endorsed the principles (and for which there is sufficient information) into its “major” or “significant” progress categories, while two-thirds were considered to have made little or no progress.
“For the last five years, it’s been pretty static,” said Wesley A. Fisher, who helped write the report and is director of research for the Claims Conference, a New York-based organization that seeks restitution for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.
Mr. Fisher is due to present the report this week at a conference in Russia that is being sponsored by the International Council of Museums.
The countries identified in the report as doing the most are Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands. Austria and the Netherlands, for example, are cited for establishing mechanisms for independent and high-quality provenance research.
But Germany is chided for, among other things, keeping secret for two years the trove of Nazi-era art found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt.
Behind the leading nations, the report cites a second tier, including Britain and the United States, that has taken some, but less impressive, steps to implement the measures. But the authors say that, in several cases, private American museums have blocked restitution claims in the courts.
Italy has initiated efforts to study whether its institutions still hold looted Jewish property. Those include the Anselmi Commission, created in 1998. The report said the commission found no evidence of such holdings by Italian museums or institutions, but critics question the thoroughness of that effort.
In one recent and highly publicized case, United States officials in 2011 seized a 16th-century painting by Girolamo Romano while it was on loan to a Florida museum, arguing in court papers that the Milan museum that owned it should have been aware of evidence that it had been stolen from a Jewish family.
In its report, the Claims Conference recommended the creation of an international association of provenance researchers that would establish a rigorous, professional standard for tracking the ownership of art. The job of such an association, it said, would be “to remove the question of provenance research as much as possible from political concerns and to make it simply part of good, ethical, common museum practice.”
Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said, “Even the countries that have done more than others have a long way to go,” adding, “We need the countries to recognize this is the right thing to do.”