Sunday, August 09, 2009

Nazi Looted Art at Oberlin College and Other U.S. Museums: Prague Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets

In late June I was invited to speak on a panel of legal experts on artwork looted by the Nazis. My topic was legal obstacles to the recovery of stolen artworks.

The image you see here is of an artwork by the artist Egon Schiele called Girl with Black Hair. Every major Schiele expert in the world - Jane Kallir, Eberhard Kornfeld and Rudolph Leopold - has said that this artwork came from Fritz Grunbaum's collection. Yet Oberlin College refuses to return it - or even to share their research or conclusions about where they believe it came from. Oberlin's website shows that the work mysteriously surfaced in Switzerland in 1956 - and stops there.

U.S. museums and liberal arts institutions concealing the origins of their artworks is one of the biggest obstacles to researchers being able to restitute artworks to the Jews and other Nazi persecutees from whom they were stolen. As Holocaust victims and their descendants die, U.S. museums simply wait, knowing that they have stolen artworks in their collections. In his 2006 testimony to Congress, AAMD Director James Cuno estimated the number of potentially Nazi-looted works in U.S. museums at "tens of thousands".
It is astonishing that U.S. museums can engage in this Holocaust denial and feel no backlash. Shame on Oberlin College. Its Dean should be tossed out on his ear.
Amb. Stuart Eizenstat supports a U.S. Art Restitution Commission. Good for him, and not a moment too soon.
You can find my full speech in Prague at the link below.
Disclosure: I represent the heirs of Fritz Grunbaum, a Jewish cabaret performer who was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.


Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, may I ask if these remote generations -- remote in time and place from the incident, the geography and the conditions surrounding the theft -- demand the restitution of items of no extraordinary market value? One seems to see reported only major items and surely much more than top quality pieces were looted.

Rich Kuslan

Ray Dowd said...

Excellent question. The Holocaust was really only a few years ago and is extraordinarily well documented. Jews literally got receipts for what was stolen before they were murdered and Nazis kept meticulous records. This is unheard of in the human history of looting and murder. So this property is not remote in an evidentiary sense or even temporal. A major focus of the Prague Conference was on Judaica which is property that has low commercial value but tremendous religious and historic significance. Many provenance researchers are upset that the process seems to be driven by persons claiming high-value items. The reality is that persons claiming the high-value items invest hundreds of thousands or even millions into research and recovery efforts that open the doors and unlock clues for many other smaller recoveries.