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Apr 2002 Journal

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Identifying and recovering works of art

The looting of art during the period 1934–1945, particularly from Jewish people, was carried out on a massive and systematic scale (it is believed that almost a third of all privately owned art in France in 1938 was looted during the subsequent six years). Most looted art was, at the end of the war, restored to its owners – where they could be identified. But where families had lost whole generations, or where families had emigrated leaving their possessions behind, or sold in dubious circumstances, this identification and follow-up by the authorities was inevitably less than perfect.

In large part, the detailed information kept by the Nazis was maintained within Eastern Europe, and so the fall of communism released vast quantities of records and data, which have played a major part in identifying and helping to resolve claims. Further, much of the information gathered by the Allied forces following the war in relation to the perpetrators and victims of looting, as well as the works which were the subject of the looting, was not, until recently, made public.

The efforts of a few in bringing the whole topic of compensation to the foreground – whether for gold held in Swiss banks, or for forced labour in German factories – contributed to the issue of looted art coming to the foreground. Finally, the publication in the early to mid-1990s of a number of books, including The Lost Museum and The Rape of Europa, raised public awareness of the extent of the looting, and the fact that many families which had been victims of the human tragedy of the Holocaust were also victims of a cultural tragedy – through the removal of their heritage.

At Christie’s, we were honoured to be involved at the earliest stages of this restitution process. In 1996, on behalf of the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities, Christie’s held a sale of some 1,000 works of art that had lain in the abbey of Mauerbach since the end of the war. These works had belonged to Jewish families that had perished in the concentration camps and there were no known heirs. The Mauerbach sale realised over £9 million.

The passage of time has not made things easier. While the moral argument in favour of restitution may in many cases be compelling, the starting point must be the identification of the works themselves. Many of the records are still there and many works are still with the governments to which they were entrusted after the war when no heir could be immediately found.

It is very often people with no current involvement in the art world who are members or heirs of families which, back in the 1930s, did own works of art. Sometimes these families had great collections, such as the Rothschilds, for whom Christie’s held a major sale of works of art that had been restituted from museums in Austria. But sometimes these families owned just a few pictures, and ones which in those days – particularly if they were the then contemporary (or as the Nazis would describe it ‘degenerate’) art of the day – were not considered particularly valuable.

Many families, or descendants of families, that were forced to leave Europe during those dark days are now thinking back as to whether their forebears did have works of art; and if they did, are wondering what became of those works. Clearly research will play a major part in any success story. There are organisations such as the Commission for Looted Art in Europe which are there to assist in this very specific field; as indeed we are regarding for example research into the works of art themselves.

New success stories of art returned to former owners are emerging all the time, and assisting in a successful outcome is one of the pleasures of working in this field.
Anthony Streatfeild, Christie’s of London

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