Retracing looted and lost art after 75 years

IRP-logoAmidst the current situation around the COVID-19 virus worldwide commemorations take place of the end of the Second World War, 75 years ago. After two generations work continues on retracing objects of arts and other objects belonging to a shared cultural heritage which were taken from Jewish people by the Nazi regime or stolen by others. The process of giving back such objects is often as difficult as retracing art objects at all, not in the least because legal matters impose themselves, too. In this post I will look at a number of relevant projects, in particular at a web portal with a central function. The International Research Portal for Records Related to Nazi-Era Cultural Property (shortened to IRP) is a branch of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI), with a portal concerning archives and their holdings as another branch.

Combining resources

The situation in the occupied European countries during the Second World War had similarities and major differences. After the war national institutions were founded for doing research on a dark and deeply troubling period, first of all by bringing together relevant documents and archival records. Tracing the fate of Jews and other persecuted people was a most important research motive, but other themes, too, called for attention. Survivors of the concentration camps often found little help from authorities and judges in regaining possession of their belongings. In the years of reconstruction their appalling situation was often simply ignored. Research along national lines has inevitably limits.

In 2014 the movie The Monuments Men, based on the book by Robert Edsel (London-New York 2009) brought the work of curators, archivists, art historians and others near the end of the Second World War and its aftermath to rescue works of art in Europe to the attention of the general public. The website of The Monuments Men Foundation informs you about its activities. However, in this project the focus is on works of art taken from galleries and museums, not so much on private collections. Nowadays The Art Loss Register helps both individuals and institutions to recover stolen works of art.

The IRP is a special portal supporting the recovery of cultural heritage stolen, confiscated or in whatever way taken away during the Second World War. Things get complicated in the face of museums and even nations acquiring items from the collections of Jewish art dealers and collectors. In fact I have to state my explicit wish not to comment on the outcome of legal cases such as the Goudstikker case and the case of the Koenigs collection. Perhaps it better to admit we now see things from a distance, and we should be aware we can see only some parts of a chaotic period which does not allow for easy extrapolation of conclusions, apart from fearing things were grim, grey or indeed beyond imagination.

At the IRP portal you can search in the databases of eleven institutions. Some of these databases cover several countries, but you got to be aware you cannot search every database of these institutions with one search interface. For this reason the IRP portal rightly states it is a demo. The Deutsches Historisches Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Mémorial de la Shoah, the British National Archives, the Nationalfonds der Republik Österreichs für Opfer des Nationalsozialismus, the Belgian State Archives, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American National Archives and Record Administration are included in the central search function of this portal.

It is remarkable the resources of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (Amsterdam), home to the IRP portal, are not yet included in the central search interface. Thus the list of resources – under the heading Institutions – with ample information about accessing databases elsewhere is most important. The tab Collections brings you either to the central search interface or to the resource notices. Sometimes you do not land directly at the right section for a particular collection. In my view you can currently skip the Collections tab. The search interface has an advanced mode where you can enter terms for artist, location and techniques, but a notice alerts you this works only with some of the databases. Mentioning exactly for which it works or not would be a welcome addition, and a clear order of the institutions, be it by alphabet or by country, would be helpful, too. However confusing this may seem, it has the major benefit of shaking you clear of the idea to find something with just one search action at a single central resource, and it helps you to confront the fact things have been entered into databases in different ways. The IRP does help you to go in the right direction when you use its information carefully.

Logo NIOD

One of the obstacles in approaching these databases is the need for the use of standards, and not just at the interface level. The NIOD has helped creating with other Dutch archives a thesaurus for terms around the Second World War and the Netherlands. This thesaurus is a key element of the portal Oorlogsbronnen [War resources]. At the IRP portal the NIOD mentions only its archival collection concerning the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the unit of the Nazi regime looting Europe for works of art and other objects of European cultural heritage.

On its website the NIOD has created a section Expert Centre Restitution (interface in Dutch and English). This centre hosts the database Herkomst gezocht / Origins unknown. Its core is information about works of art either taken form Jewish people or acquired in dubious other ways and at some time – or still – present in the governmental Netherlands Art Collection (Nederlands Kunstbezit). Here, too, there are warnings about the completeness of the information. The NIOD point also to the website Museale verwervingen vanaf 1933 with information about works acquired by Dutch museums between 1933 and 1945 in suspicious ways such as theft, sale under pressure and confiscation. At the IRP portal is currently no indication whether such resources will be included in the future or not. The database of Museale verwervingen, accessible in Dutch and English, has not been updated since December 2018. Its overview of links and the succinct bibliography with mainly Dutch studies are worth mentioning. While preparing this post I noticed the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History has very recently digitized seven archives of art dealers between 1850 and 1950. In its holdings the RKD has archival collection of nine art dealers, among them the art firm Goudstikker. Although I am not unfamiliar with art history I have not conducted special research concerning the Dutch part of the history of stolen, looted and lost art around and during the Second World War, but these digitized archives are valuable new resources, accessible with an English and Dutch interface.

The Dutch websites figure here for a clear reason, not just to honour my regular Dutch view as a recurring element of my posts. It is perhaps wise to mention briefly some of the databases not yet included in the central search layer of the IRP Portal. In some cases the IRP’s overview makes clear an institution has not just one relevant database. Several institutions have archival collections concerning the Einsatzgruppe Reichsleiter Rosenberg. Only the database Cultural Plunder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is directly included in the IRP one-step search. On the website of this project you can also find archival guides for a number of countries, and a section on looted libraries. Lost Art is a database of the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, with an interface in German, English and Russian. The WGA-Datenbank of the Landesarchiv Berlin can be consulted in German and English, and there is a useful introduction on the website of this institution concerning the Wiedergutmachungämter (restitution offices). The University of Heidelberg is mentioned at the IRP portal for its project German Sales 1901-1945 with nearly 10,000 auction catalogues. The website with the database at ArtHistoricum contains much information besides the database. The portion of this project with German Sales 1930-1945 is included in the provenance databases of the Getty Research Institute.

The resources overview at the IRP portal is precious, and exactly for this reason you would expect explanations about the way more databases will be integrated into its search function. The differences between databases are a challenge to scholars and the IRP team dealing with them. It is sensible to view the portal as a tool supporting the use of these databases, and not, or not yet, as a complete replacement of searches to be conducted in individual databases. On purpose I indicated the languages used at other project websites. It would be helpful to have at least some elements of the IRP portal in various languages. In fact not only English is used in the IRP resources overview.

An unfinished history

Among websites and projects that deserve at least mentioning here, but perhaps also inclusion at the IRP portal, are other projects concerning looted and lost art. The most often mentioned projects are the Claims Conference and Looted Art of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. The art library of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz has a succinct commented list – available in German and English – with the main relevant projects and databases. The Swiss Federal Office for Culture has a section on its multilingual website for looted art from the Nazi period, with a list of links. I would like to mention here two websites not included in these overviews. Auction Catalog Segmentation is a French resource created by the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art with a focus on the auction catalogues of the Parisian firm Drouot between 1939 and 1945. The Landesarchiv Berlin and the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin have created a website Bergungsstelle für wissenschaftliche Bibliotheken focusing on books taken from research libraries. This library participates with five other institutions at Looted Cultural Assets, with currently some 31,000 provenance records and information about 8,000 persons. Not just libraries work here together, but also the Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin-Centrum Judaicum and the Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden in Hamburg.

Logo EHRI

How can the memory of the twelve years of the Nazi period and its history of violence, genocide and other atrocities be kept alive? The EHRI project is one of the efforts of scholars to help studying the darkest part of this period. In Berlin one of the memorials is named Topographie des Terrors. Many German memorials and other websites can be found in the extensive links list of the Gedenkstättenforum. The portal Gedenkorte Europa 1939-1945 helps you to find more places of memory in Europe. However, I will not try to answer this question with only information about initiatives for remembrance. The actions to retrace, recover and restitute objects to their owners or successors, and the efforts to entangle legal questions about the rightful ownership of such objects are part of the aftermath of the Second World War and form in a way part of its remembrance. Sometimes the stories about looted art form a painful part of the aftermath when they brought further appalling humiliation to survivors and their families. Acts and places of remembrance should not hide the ways the stories of the Second World War have also been ignored, kept silent or made invisible. Sorting things out legally about objects is one thing, bringing some kind of justice to people in the face or irreparable human and material loss and injustice done to them is another challenge. Behind these objects is the history of persons with for each her or his individual history and the history of persecuted groups during a terrible period of human history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s