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Web site is guide to Nazi-era art

WASHINGTON, Sept. 11 (JTA) — When the Nazi regime held sway over much of Europe, Jews faced deportation to concentration camps or fled pell-mell across the continent to safety in Britain, the Americas and the Asian rim. In the process, many families lost not only lives, but property, including cherished artworks, much of it looted outright and used to prop up Germany’s sagging economy. Some of this art came into the “thriving” wartime market in New York, where private collectors and museums snapped it up, says Ori Soltes, founder in 1997 of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, or HARP. “While people in Europe were frying in the ovens, people here were buying their paintings without asking questions,” laments Soltes, a former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Jewish National Museum. A window that could illuminate some of those losses opened on Monday. The American Association of Museums launched a new Web site designed to help researchers tracking art plundered by the German Nazi regime between 1939 and 1945. “The benefit of this portal goes beyond just helping the claimant find a specific piece of art, because it also helps researchers to eliminate a lot of material and focus their research,” said AAM president and CEO Edward Able at a press conference on Sept. 3. He suggested that online discovery of a like object or one that came from a looted collection could offer clues to the provenance of others. Provenance refers to the record of ownership of an artwork. Some 66 U.S. museums have linked their relevant records — on more than 5,700 objects — to the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal, at AAM has close to 3,000 museum members, roughly 150 to 160 of which, said Able, exhibit only art. Participants include some of the country’s major institutions, among them the National Gallery, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. The portal’s links, either on Web sites or PDF files, include selected images of the art works. Other links guide the reader to sites for art held by European museums. Funding for the portal came from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Getty Grant Program, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany-Rabbi Israel Miller Fund for Shoah Research and the Max and Gloria Dreyfus Foundation. Asked why AAM waited more than five decades to take action, Able contended that museums did not know about Nazi-looted art until documents began to emerge from the archives of Eastern Europe, after the fall of the Soviet Union. “I don’t think, to be honest with you, that museums were aware of the issue,” Able said. “It was not until after the archives started to be opened and information shared about what happened at the end of the war and how the material was repatriated and the possibilities there, that all museums worldwide began to wake up to the possibility that some of this material might have gotten into their collections.” U.S. museums have dealt with fewer than 20 cases of stolen art, said Able, since the issue resurfaced in the mid-1990s with the appearance of Lynn Nicholas’ book “The Rape of Europa,” published in 1994. Not all of these settlements ended in restitution. “The irony is that European institutions have made far more progress on this than American museums,” said historian Marc Masurovsky, who wrote his 1990 American University master’s thesis on the use of looted assets by the Germans and their allies. “In one year alone, the Louvre returned a dozen works of art to the same Jewish family, and that is more than U.S. museums together have returned in the last decade.” Some scholars dispute that curators didn’t know the origins of looted work. Masurovsky believes museums had to know whose art they were buying during and after World War II. “The leadership of American museums was involved in the location and recovery of stolen art — so they knew where these collections were, who the collectors were, whether they were Jews or not and who they should be returned to,” said Masurovsky in a phone interview. He noted that “these were the very same people who argued and lobbied for the transfer of these works of art that remained unclaimed to the United States.” And the theft of art did more than victimize individual Jews, argued Masurovsky, who now heads a Claims Conference research project on Jewish slave labor as he finishes a doctoral thesis on looted art. “The German government was financially ailing by the late 1930s and the expropriation of Jewish property was a key ingredient to replenishing coffers,” said Masurovsky, who lives in Washington. “In other words, the German government used Jewish wealth to help finance the persecution of European Jews.” And those who bought questionable art during the Nazi era seemed to lose their usual interest in the origins of the works, said Soltes, who is working on a book about the arts and the Holocaust. “In the 1940s and 50s, museums here as well as in Europe generally turned a blind eye to provenance issues that are normally part of their bread and butter,” said Soltes, a Georgetown University lecturer in fine arts and theology. Lawyer-historian Willy Korte also disputes the claims that museums didn’t know the provenance of stolen art during this period. He charges there was a “silent conspiracy” after World War II in the elite art markets of the West. “Many participants — dealers, buyers and sellers — knew very well to whom many of these things had belonged: Jewish collectors,” said Korte, HARP’s vice chairman. He counters the idea that museums could not trace the provenance of suspect artworks until certain archives opened in the early 1990s. Korte, who says he has been researching cases of Nazi-looted art since the mid-1980s, cited a “wealth of information” from such sources as auction and exhibit catalogs dating to the 1920s. “What’s in the libraries” of Europe and the United States “has never been closed,” Korte argued. “What has been closed were acquisition records of museums and dealers.” Soltes welcomes the new online portal but believes its success will rest on the attitude of museums to people who lay valid claims to art objects. “This portal is definitely a positive step; it’s definitely taken a very long time to happen,” Soltes averred. “But the bigger question is if someone walks through that portal and discovers a family heirloom, how cooperative the museum in question will be.”