The Nazis Looted My Family’s Art – Here’s How We Could Get It Back

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The CLAE is looking for several thousand works at a time. Some come with full documentation of their travels, while others have little more than the title and artist name to go on.

CLAE’s latest success story illustrates some of the obstacles to restitution efforts that have persisted since 1998. Earlier this year, it was announced that an important lost work of the Polish avant-garde has been recovered: an experimental futuristic film 12-minute film titled Europa, created by the artist couple Stefan and Franciszka Themerson in Warsaw in 1931-1932.

The Jewish-Polish couple both died in 1988, believing that Europe was lost forever. They had deposited it, along with four other works, in a cinematographic laboratory in Paris before enlisting to fight alongside the Allies during the war; on their return, the owner of the laboratory informed them that the five works had been seized by the Nazis and probably destroyed.

One movie subsequently surfaced in the Soviet Union, but the others remained missing – until two years ago, when the Themersons’ niece, Jasia Reichardt, received a denunciation from the Polish government’s Pilecki Institute. . A researcher had found a reference to Europa in an index to a printed catalog, indicating that it was held at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin.

The CLAE was drafted, starting a correspondence with the Bundesarchiv: establishing exactly what the film in its collection was, how it got there and what to do about it. It took extensive research to confirm that the copy of Europa in the Bundesarchiv was indeed the cellulose nitrate version deposited in the laboratory in Paris – including a lengthy exchange with the archives, which had no trace of it in their online account. database.

Despite this, explains Anne Webber of CLAE, “Anything in a public collection in Germany that could pose a problem is supposed to be registered and listed on a government website. And yet there are still thousands of looted works of art, not only in Germany but also elsewhere, of which only a fraction has been published. Europa was not one of them.

The Bundesarchiv agreed to return Europa to Themerson Estate, and the family donated the original copy to the British Film Institute in London. A happy, albeit late ending, then – but things aren’t always that easy.

One of the problems, as Webber tells me, is the insufficiency – or more frequently the complete absence – of national grievance processes for heirs requesting the return of identified works in public collections. Since Washington, only five countries, including the United Kingdom, have such processes in place. Many others, including Poland, Spain and Switzerland, have not. (The Kunstmuseum Bern recently decided to return a number of the cloudy provenance works of its controversial Gurlitt bequest, but this was entirely at the discretion of the Swiss museum.)

There is also the issue of material confiscated by the Nazis that appears in private collections. In any claim, as Webber explains, whether a work of art is returned “depends on the accident of where a looted work of art is found.” Big auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s are pretty good at this, with dedicated restitution services that research the provenance of works before shipment.

This is not necessarily bad for business: evidenced for example by the deal negotiated by Christie’s New York for a watercolor by Van Gogh, auctioned last month for $ 35.9 million, a record for a watercolor by the artist. . The profits were shared between the estate of its most recent owner and the two Jewish families who owned the work before it was plundered.


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