Museums are often viewed as repositories of culture and history, showcasing the beauty and creativity of humanity. However, behind many works of art hanging on museum walls lies a dark history of theft, violence and colonialism. Museums worldwide are grappling with the complex legacies of their collections.
In New York in 2022, a new law was passed that addresses one painful chapter of history: the Holocaust. Signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, this law mandates that the state’s museums must acknowledge whether a work of art in their possession was stolen by the Nazi regime. This legislation is part of a broader effort to honor and support Holocaust survivors and their families.
The Holocaust left an indelible scar on history. Among the many horrors of that time, the Nazis looted approximately 600,000 artworks from Jewish individuals and families. Decades later, the legacy of these thefts continues to reverberate in the lives of survivors and their descendants, many of whom have not regained possession of their lost treasures.
The issue of Nazi-looted art extends far beyond New York and is a global concern. Advocates for Holocaust survivors have long called for art institutions worldwide to take more proactive measures in identifying the rightful owners of looted artworks in their collections. While some progress has been made, challenges persist.
The Washington Principles, signed by 44 countries in 1998, established international guidelines for the return of Nazi-looted art. Countries like Austria and Germany have returned tens of thousands of stolen items in accordance with those principles. However, the process of identifying rightful owners and returning looted art can be slow, complicated and sometimes unresolved, particularly when art is swept up in the chaos of war or political instability.
Advocates for Holocaust survivors have long been calling on art institutions to do better. In 2018, the Louvre opened an exhibition of art stolen by Nazis, claiming that the goal was to find the works’ rightful owners. But restitution scholar Marc Masurovsky told The Washington Post’s James McAuley that these efforts were “far too little, far too late.” The museum, he said, should be more proactive about identifying the rightful owners of the works in its collections—a vital step in restitution that museums around the world struggle with.
“Uncovering the provenance of a piece … can be slow work that sometimes never reaches resolution,” wrote Jackie Mansky for Smithsonian magazine in 2017.
Restitution battles have seen both victories and setbacks in recent years. French museums returned 15 Nazi-looted artworks to Jewish families in early 2022, demonstrating progress in addressing historical injustices. However, challenges remain, with some European nations largely ignoring or inadequately implementing the Washington Principles.
The new law, however, does not address the issue of restitution. Restitution disputes involving artworks have been a contentious issue in the state, with cases involving prominent museums like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Moreover, the law focuses primarily on Nazi-looted art from Europe and does not acknowledge art stolen from non-European countries. This limitation has raised questions about the law’s scope and its potential to address the broader global issue of stolen art.
As of now, several prominent New York museums, including the Met, the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Brooklyn Museum have not released information on how they plan to comply with the new law’s requirements.
The long and short of it is that art museums around the globe, with very few exceptions, have artworks within their walls that were expropriated by illegal means and the time is long overdue for justice to prevail after eight long decades since the end of World War II.
Such museums in New York as the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library & Museum were recently called upon to return artwork to descendants of Jewish collectors as well as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California and others. Moreover, Nazi-looted art remains in public art galleries and private collections.
Legislation must be enacted in such countries as Israel and Germany. Looted art can be found in the most surprising venues and Israel is no exception. The possibility exists that Nazi-looted art made its way to their exhibit spaces and, as such, thorough investigations need to become a priority.
In Europe, art museums across the continent possess artwork and other cultural and historic items acquired through outright theft and other shady practices.
Let it be known that the worst offender is Germany. In its art museums can be found troves of Nazi-looted art and pieces that were obtained through less than honest means, as has been documented by the media.
To that end, the Jewish Voice made the decision to create a task force whose exclusive agenda will be to scour art museums around the world and launch thorough investigations in order to discover the whereabouts of these art works as they are matched up with the descendants of their original owners—the majority of whom are Jewish.
The creation of a highly effective and professional task force takes time to build from the ground up and, more importantly, it requires adequate funding.
As such, the Jewish Voice is calling upon renowned philanthropists who deeply care about seeing justice meted out in this matter to step up to the plate and help fund this task force.
We are calling upon such generous contributors to noble causes as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Wall Street titan Ira Rennert, hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, Tulsa oil magnates Lynn and Stacy Schusterman, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Dell Computer founder Michael Dell, casino magnate Miriam Adelson, Victoria’s Secret founder Leslie Wexner, Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Judaica collector Jay Schottenstein, film director Steven Spielberg, co-founder of Birthright Israel Charles Bronfman, art collector Audrey Irmas, chairman of the board of the Tikvah Fund Roger Hertog, real estate investor Adam Milstein and others to give serious consideration to donating generously to the Jewish Voice task force on restitution of Nazi-looted art.
Time is slipping away. This project must be established now in order to achieve the kind of restitution of Nazi-looted art for which descendants of Jewish owners have waited much too long. Correcting a colossal injustice does not occur overnight, but with the assistance of those who care, this can and will be accomplished.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Voice.