Holocaust-Era Assets

An Art Historian's Perspective

Louis Marchesano, Collections Curator of Visual Resources
The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities
1200 Getty Center Dr., Suite 1100, Los Angeles, CA., 90049

e-mail: Lmarchesano@getty.edu

This is a slightly altered version of a paper delivered to the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles, 24 June 1999.

I've been asked to speak today not as an expert on looted art, but as an art historian who is devoted to picture research and archival research. And as the relatively new curator of a large photo archive that documents the visual arts, I have some experience with the variety of problems you might encounter with art-historical research.

So today, as an art historian, with a very recent interest in your topic, I say rather humbly that we are faced with an enormous task; and this despite the efforts dozens of researchers have already made to uncover the story of Nazi plunder. In the continuing attempts to uncover this story, the Working Group's task of locating still-classified records that bare upon Nazi war crimes will be vital.

Nazis plundered hundreds of thousands of art works. By some accounts, about one-third of all art works were "acquired" by the Nazis in one way or another. And we are very aware that tens of thousands of looted objects were never properly repatriated or returned to their lawful owners.

From our perspective at the close of this troubled century, looting, and repatriation, and restitution all constitute parts of an enormous historical picture. Although some parts are more finished than others, this picture is incomplete. Our goal is to strengthen the picture's outlines and fill in the historical details. We can get a sense of how to accomplish this by looking at problems raised by the invaluable scholarship of Michael Kurtz (Nazi Contraband...1985) and John Petropoulos (Art as Politics...1996), and the essential investigations of Hector Feliciano (The Lost Museum...1997) and Lynn Nicholas (The Rape of Europa...1994). While these and dozens of other investigators guide us through the maze of archival resources, which are already accessible, they also help us to see the problems we face in painting a full picture of Nazi plundering, allied repatriating, and the current attempts to identify objects and their previous owners. We know -- in order to complete the picture, we must have access to every available document because we don't know what every available document might reveal.

I want to mention four basic themes that the war criminal records should help us continue dealing with.

1.How did the Nazi's acquire objects? A number of authors, notably John Petropoulos and Lynn Nicholas, have illuminated Nazi means and methods. The Nazis created a number of bureaucratic agencies charged with "collecting" art in a variety of ways. Sometimes they purchased objects and sometimes they simply and brutally plundered. Their methods were often smeared with a veneer of bureaucratic legitimacy, which means, of course, they often kept very good records; but those records are not complete. Moreover, we now know that these agencies often competed with each other. They were controlled by a variety of Nazi personalities and their minions, all of whom had their own collecting agendas, some specifically directed toward Jewish properties. The complexity of that situation was exacerbated by the art market. The trade in art thrived in the 1930s and 1940s. It thrived in part because the Nazi's coerced people to sell objects, and in part because many people (let's call them collaborators) took advantage of the competition between Nazi collectors who desperately wanted to enrich themselves with artifacts of high culture. Of course, much of the plundering and collaboration was not adequately documented. It seems to me that the war criminal records are essential to disentangling the threads of this complex story.

2.How were objects repatriated? Michael Kurtz has brilliantly outlined the politics of repatriation amongst the different Allied agencies. The Allies failed to create, let alone maintain the fiction of, a truly unified repatriation policy. We obviously need more documents to compare to the enormous amount of records generated by the various Allied agencies, all of whom had different definitions of repatriation and therefore dealt with objects in a variety of ways.

3.What was taken or acquired? from whom? and when? Here I am thinking of Hector Feliciano's book The Lost Museum. He focuses on well-known collectors and dealers in a major European city -- Paris; despite the prominence of those people and their objects, Feliciano still had great trouble constructing that story. So what of all the lesser-known names? not the Rothschilds. What of people who disappeared in the camps or escaped with memories? memories that in many cases are recalled only by the heirs of those victims? I'm aware that Jewish organizations are helping survivors and their families reconstruct collections and to this end the Nazi war criminal records might prove to be one of their most important resources.

4.Where are the objects now? This question not only raises problems regarding the provenance of art works and their movements in the post-war art trade; it also raises questions about the current attributions of those objects and Nazi art-historical practices. For example, a painting that today is attributed to artist "X" may have been attributed to artist "Y" before the war. I think you can see the problem. Of course museums reattribute works almost as a matter of course (forgive the exaggeration), but they usually document those changes. I want to know if Nazi art historians were in the business of reattributing stolen works of art? In a more general sense if I were searching for looted art, I would need to know if declassified war criminal records in anyway illuminate the motives and methods behind Nazi art-historical scholarship. This kind of knowledge would help investigators decipher the sometimes meticulous inventories gathered by Nazi "collectors".

Aside from giving us new information about people, objects, and the methods of Nazi collecting, newly declassified records may also have some baring on documents we've already examined. For example, it will be very interesting to see if such records inform Hector Feliciano's historical representation of the collaborationist art market in occupied Paris. I am implying here that the unencumbered accessibility of documents facilitates one of the most important elements of archival research: serendipity. Chance encounters with names of objects, people, and places in one particular set of documents may lead us back to documents we already know (or at least we thought we knew). We may generate new lines of questions, make connections between data, and continue to construct a vivid historical picture.

At the beginning of the his book the Lost Museum, Feliciano says about his research "(a) piece of the puzzle would suddenly materialize while I was conducting an interview in Paris, but only in fragmented form, and the missing element...would not appear until months or even years later through documents in an archive or an art catalogue in a different part of the world." (Hector Feliciano, The Lost Museum, p. 7) A bit later he adds that "a recently declassified wartime document...would bring up information that would question the reliability of the source I happened to be interviewing. This soon made me extremely cautious..." (p. 9)

At the risk of sounding trite, I would say "the more information the better". But that's not all I'm saying here. The general release of documents should accomplish a couple of things:

  1. by allowing scholars to engage with new resources, which may allow them to follow old leads, or inspire them to generate new lines of inquiry, scholars will be in a position to paint a comprehensively detailed historical picture


  2. introducing new documents into the research equation will probably allow (and maybe inspire) scholars to make better use of the mass of documents which are already available.

Both these points should facilitate the search for very specific data, the kind of data you need to trace, for example, not only the names of victims and perpetrators, but also the names of objects.

I also think that the Working Group has an important psychological role to play. I believe that the publicized release of documents can encourage a greater number of scholars to engage with the records, thereby increasing our collective pool of knowledge. For example, many of the themes discussed today, fit quite readily into a major sub-field of Art History, that is the "history of collecting". Art historians already have well-developed tools for tracing provenance, standardizing and sharing information about art, understanding the nature of attributions, and identifying images. The potential for greater participation is there...

And finally I believe that the release of documents, and the publicity this receives, has an important effect on the people whose job it is to facilitate research. It encourages people such as myself and my colleagues at the Getty Research Institute, and other collecting institutions, to disseminate other kinds of documents that might help investigators and scholars pursue various research agendas. I am thinking now of the massive photo archives at the Getty Research Institute here in Los Angeles and at the Frick Art Library in New York. Both archives contain tens of thousands of photographs of art taken before WWII. These documentary photographs might be helpful. Many institutions also hold the papers of important art historians, some of whom would have generated research notes about paintings in private and public collections during the first half of this century. A case in point: the Getty Research Institute houses the notebooks of Ellis K. Waterhouse, an art historian who described in great detail the paintings he saw in many collections from the 1920s through the 1970s. Those kinds of documents could potentially prove invaluable, especially if linked in some way to the growing number of records which frequently reveal the names of major and minor collectors, as well as descriptions of objects.

In short, our ability to pinpoint information about people and objects, that is victims and art, depends on the variety of resources at our disposal. Only with unencumbered access to a full range of documents and records can we continue to construct the complex historical picture of looting and repatriation and fully address the matter of restitution.

Regarding the Working Group's brief to locate classified documents that bare upon Nazi war crimes, I would want to know if all interrogation transcripts (and other supporting documents?) that were used to generate the Consolidated Interrogation Reports** by the Art Looting Investigation unit of the OSS have been declassified. I would also wish to see a comprehensive list of names that appear in these documents shared with all the government agencies who have been asked to cooperate with the Working Group. Such a list should include the names of victims, dealers, art historians and other art experts, personal and bureaucratic agents of the various Nazi leaders, as well as the agencies charged with art acquisitions and looting.

**See Records of the Army Staff (RG319), Records of the Collecting and Dissemination Division, (G-2), #2011.