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For stolen art, the first steps home; Some museums are beginning to make an attempt at restitution for those whose private collections were ravaged by the Nazis.


Think how much safer the 20th century might have been if only Adolph Hitler had been accepted into a Viennese art institute.

As it was, millions of innocent people were murdered. Less well- known, however, is that Der Fuehrer played out his unrealized artistic expression by engineering one of the most extensive art heists in history.

By some estimates, between the years 1933 and 1945, the Nazis stole or extorted more than 600,000 pieces of art, including paintings by Rembrandt, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. Many of the works were looted from museums in occupied countries, but much of it was also confiscated from Jewish art dealers and collectors, many of whom perished in the Holocaust.

After World War II, hundreds of thousands of pieces found their way into museums and collections throughout the world, including the United States.

This month, 55 years after the war's end, some American art museums are taking the first steps toward possibly reuniting those stolen goods with their rightful owners, or at least with their heirs. In recent weeks, at least four major museums -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago -- began posting on their Web sites a list of paintings whose ownership during the Nazi years was in doubt. The intention is that people with information about the paintings or actual claims will come forward.

While some Jewish groups say they are encouraged by the development, they also say it has come only after much pressure and a general reluctance on the part of museums.

"Until the Swiss Bank scandal, frankly, museums were indifferent on this issue," says Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York. "They had their own version of 'Don't ask, don't tell.' " Even now, Steinberg insists, museums are showing varied levels of commitment toward clearing up ownership and returning works of art.

Still, the action of the American museums and their European counterparts represents a striking departure from the complete absence of activity during the decades after the war. Then, the restitution of art was hardly on anyone's agenda, including the Jewish survivors of Hitler's Europe.

"When people focused on the Holocaust, they focused on refugee location, on reuniting families, on all the important humanitarian business and art just didn't seem that important," said Constance Lowenthal, director of the Commission for Art Recovery, an arm of the World Jewish Congress. "Holocaust survivors wanted to move on with their lives as best they could and not dwell on the unspeakable experiences they had lived through."

While the Western Allies recovered much of the looted art and sent it back to the countries of origin, those nations, crippled by the war, didn't place a high priority on returning the work to individuals. "Many of those people were either abroad or in heaven," Lowenthal said. Much of the work eventually entered the art market.

As for the Soviets, they generally shipped everything they found back to Russia.

Not much changed for decades, except the deaths of Holocaust survivors -- those with direct knowledge of their ownership of artwork -- and the further loss of documentation. But a major breakthrough occurred in the early 1990s when two Soviet art historians published evidence about the looted Nazi art in Russia. Their account was followed soon after by "The Rape of Europa," a book by a Washington author, Lynn Nicholas, which detailed the history of the Nazis' plunder.

Those books and others drew the attention of the Western media and Jewish organizations, which began to wonder if any of the plundered art was in European and American museums. Two years ago, the Association of Art Museum Directors pledged that its 170 member institutions would investigate whether any of their holdings had been plundered during the war.

But nothing much happened until earlier this year, when British art museums began publishing on the Internet a list of artwork with questionable ownership during the crucial years. At the same time, some American newspapers, working with the World Jewish Congress, identified a dozen paintings in American museums whose ownership was sketchy during the war years or had passed through the hands of art dealers known to have associated with the Nazis. One of those identified was a Rembrandt in the Los Angeles County Museum.

Events moved quickly after that. The four American museums have begun publishing their own lists, and more such lists are expected.

"Museums are going to be very aggressive," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. "They're doing due diligence. We have an open competition to see who can get online the fastest."

Vikan said the Walters acquired the vast majority of its holdings before 1931 and is therefore beyond suspicion. Nevertheless, he said, about a year ago the museum researched the ownership of those pieces it had received later and found no suspicious gaps in its ownership.

Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, also said that the vast majority of its holdings was either acquired prior to 1933, directly from artists, or its ownership history is clear. As for the exceptions, she said, the BMA has no reason to believe any works were looted.

"There are paintings where we don't have complete provenance from beginning to end and some cases where we don't know where a painting was from 1933 to 1945," she said. "But we have no reason to feel any painting is connected with any person whose behavior is believed to have been suspect."

Even with the new developments, Steinberg is not convinced the museums will be aggressive enough. He thinks some are establishing such high levels of proof that many looted pieces will never be identified. For instance, he says, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts published its list of seven pieces from an initial list of over 200 works with ownership gaps during the crucial period. In his mind, the entire initial list should have been published.

Malcolm Rogers, director of the Boston museum, said that the museum's curators were only suspicious about the seven, and did not yet have enough evidence to cast doubt on any of the others without more research. "It seems inappropriate to create a blacklist when we have no grounds for suspicion," he said.

Rogers said that since placing the seven paintings on the Internet Monday, the museum had recorded over 10,000 hits to the site. "I don't think we've identified any information that advances our knowledge that a painting was [plundered] or otherwise improperly handled," he said, "but we fully anticipate the Web site will bring in such information."

Everyone anticipates that there will be cases in which museums identify plundered Nazi art in which the original owner and all heirs are dead. Rogers and other directors believe in such cases the museums should continue to display the art along with an explanation of its history.

"We think it entirely appropriate that a work of art acquired in good faith should stay in a museum in the public domain with the information that allows people to understand the public issues in the hopes that the Holocaust never be forgotten."

Steinberg strongly disagrees. "We not only object to that position but take offense," he said. "It is inconceivable to us that the museums would seek to benefit from that which the Nazis were themselves prevented from doing."

Instead, he suggests that the looted art should be sold, with the proceeds going to Holocaust survivors.

Alternatively, he says, the art could be displayed at a new museum built for the purpose of displaying the looted art.

Ironically, says Lowenthal of the Commission for Art Recovery, Hitler had a similar idea at one time. In his hometown of Linz, Austria, he planned to build a museum where he would display his plundered art -- or at least those works the once-scorned painter determined to be adequately "Aryan."

Pub Date: 04/16/00

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