Legalities and Looting: Nazi Era Provenance Research

Provenance, or the complete history of ownership of an object, has been utilized by historians and scholars since the 1700’s. It is roughly equivalent to the chain of ownership in legal terms. For years, provenance amounted to little more than aiding with research and documenting an objects history. In the museum world it fell squarely in the curatorial realm as a way to enhance the amount of knowledge available on a certain object as well as establish legal title of an object before acquisition. However, not all objects have a neat history. Within the past couple of decades, provenance has been used to track and return stolen artwork. The biggest catalyst for this new approach to provenance was the prevalence of looted Nazi Era art turning up in collections or at auction. Through a series of purchases, transfers, and transactions, these artworks had snuck their way into collections. The more the artwork moved around, the harder it got to trace or ascertain its origin. It was clear that thorough provenance research would have to be utilized to return suspect artworks to their rightful owners or heirs.

Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party, was obsessed with art. An aspiring artist himself, Hitler was denied acceptance into local art schools and galleries refused to show his work. During his rise to power in the 1930’s, Hitler purged German galleries and museums of modernist art. The concepts behind modernist genres such as impressionism, expressionism, fauvism, and cubism eluded Hitler. He believed these artists did not have the ability to see life as it really appeared. Modernist art quickly formed the backbone of Hitler’s “degenerate art show,” which mocked artworks that Hitler deemed inferior. Many other looted modernist pieces were simply burned or destroyed. Hitler preferred traditional artworks such as renaissance, classical, or baroque pieces. These he often kept for his own collection and soon Hitler was creating lists of artworks that he desired and where they might be found. Sometimes these works were purchased through forced sales, but more often than not they were acquired through looting. When Hitler invaded Europe, he was smitten by the grand museums and started envisioning ideas for a Fuhrer museum is Acropolis. Almost every Nazi leader had a collection of looted art as well. Herman Goereng had the most substantial collection next to Hitler’s. Unlike Hitler, he did not care about the purity of his collection and simply collected as much art as possible in order to appear more cultured.

As news of German’s invasion spread, countries began to try and protect their art assets. One of the most well-known instances of this was the full evacuation of the Louvre. Over 400, 000 works were evacuated in thirty five conveys and hidden in castles throughout France. The prestigious Mona Lisa had its own ambulance that allowed it to have a higher degree of climate control to protect from damage. The curator who rode with the Mona Lisa is said to have blacked out from the lack of humidity. The famous Winged Victory statue proved to be the most difficult to transport and required an improvisational inclined ramp to slowly move the statue down the stairs. The Hermitage Museum in Russia faced a similar need to evacuate its artworks. Over the 900 day siege, fuel and food ran low. The museum lost power and was unable to be climate controlled. Museum workers often had to chip away at ice with crowbars. Other times art could not be protected and looted art simply had to be kept track of. Rose Vallund was a curator at the Jeu De Paume who single handedly kept records of over 16,000 artworks that were looted from Jewish Parisians. Her records included what the work was, who it was taken by, which family it belonged to, and where it was sent. In Italy workers from all backgrounds were mobilized to build protective enclosures for important artworks and monuments using whatever materials were available. For example, Michelangelo’s David was protected with a pile of bricks. When the allied powers entered the war they recruited individual soldiers know as monuments men to help occupied countries protect their monuments and evacuate artwork. However, destruction of monuments and artwork stemmed from both allied and axis powers. The allied bombing of the Campo Santo in Italy is still being repaired to this day. Fascist propaganda often used the allied forces destruction of monuments to recruit forces. While some allied soldiers tried to stem the flood of looting and destruction others reaped their own rewards.

When the Axis powers lost the war they were none too happy. During retreat from occupied countries German soldiers wove a trail of destruction in their wake defacing and destroying as many artworks and monuments as possible. Soviet forces and monuments men found caches of artworks in caves and castles with thousands of stolen paintings. Hitler’s personal collection was found in a large salt mine which had been retrofitted with climate controlled storage units, bunkers, and conservation studios. He had amassed over 6,500 paintings alone. Other collections, such as Goering’s, were looted and dispersed. The monuments men and Soviet Union began to return as many of these works to their proper owners as possible, however most of the owners could not be traced or had perished. Still others made their way into collections, museums, and auction houses through a series of good faith purchases. Soon after the events of World War II, the Cold War split the temporary alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union. As more efforts were focused into quelling Soviet expansion, less efforts were focused on the repatriation (return) of looted artworks. This allowed more looted artworks to work their way into the market and collections relatively unnoticed.

In the 1990’s, after the events of the Cold War, major changes swept the museum and art industry regarding the use of provenance. The first of which was the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990. This act covered human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony belonging to Native American and Native Hawaiian organizations. During colonial times, many early collectors looted indigenous grave sites or property for objects to study and add to their collections. Over time, these objects traded hands many times and wound up in modern collections. NAGPRA allowed represented indigenous organizations or lineal descendants to make repatriation requests for objects that belonged to them. Periodic collection inventories, summaries, and consolation with Native American originations aided museums in discovering indigenous owned objects in their collection. As collection objects were added to the museum’s collection, provenance research kept NAGPRA in mind. In 1998 the Presidential Committee of Holocaust Assets (PCHA) was created to research issues related to Nazi looted assets and report the findings to the president. The American Association of Museums (AAM) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) quickly responded to the initiatives raised by PCHA by creating their own sets of Nazi Era Provenance guidelines. The new guidelines released in 2000 stipulated that museums should devote extra provenance research to objects that underwent a change of ownership between 1933 and 1945, or the years World War II took place. In 2003 AAM launched the Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP) to provide a way for victims or heirs of looting to post queries about missing pieces and for museums to manage their own holdings of suspect artworks. The database is estimated to account for only 1/10th of the stolen artworks.

World War II was one of the most horrific events in human history and the world struggles to deal with its far reaching effects to this day. Today provenance is used for a variety of different reasons in the museum industry but Nazi Era Provenance and NAGPRA continue to account for a large majority of efforts. Provenance research extends to every object that enters a museum to assure that it has a legal title, is not stolen or illegal property, and assure complete authenticity. Outside of the museum industry provenance research is used by large auction houses and high profile dealers to address similar issues. The FBI may also utilize provenance to track patterns when dealing with a string of counterfeits suspected to be made by the same forger. In today’s art market, there is a call for detailed provenance to be accessible to anyone. As more collectors move towards collecting art as a financial asset rather than for pleasure, they are more demanding on knowing the authenticity and legality of the work to ensure it will yield returns down the road. As the art market changes it is likely the use of provenance will change with it.

— Article by: Christopher Rahmeh