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A Precarious Predicament: Art and War

Retrieving stolen art from the Greater Middle East and World War II

Published on 16 March 2010

Author(s): New York Art Resource Center/Elizabeth Lane

Type:  News

As the stewards of the Greater Middle East’s cultural heritage attempt to stymie the illegal transfer of objects, it is telling to the importance of their quest to look at the current impact of the Second World War (WWII) on provenance research

While the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan wage on, NGOs, scholars, and governments from around the world have worked to raise awareness as well as to safeguard the wealth of cultural heritage currently at risk in the Greater Middle East, as evidenced in the recent exhibition Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met).

As concerned stakeholders scramble to deal with the preponderance of objects that have fallen into the wrong hands, customs officials, curators, police officers, soldiers, art dealers, and collectors have been asked by organizations such as the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to be on the lookout for items that may have left the war-torn countries illegally.
ICOM’s Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk is a guide to the most common types of looted or stolen objects from Iraq to appear on the art market. The guide includes photographs, examples of suspicious visual markings, explanatory information, and, when applicable, brief provenances. Defining the provenance, or, as is the case for Iraqi antiquities, identifying the place of origin and consequent ownership lineage of an object, is quite difficult. Defining the provenance of an antiquity and/or work of art looted from a war-torn country confounds the problem.

As the stewards of the Greater Middle East’s cultural heritage attempt to stymie the illegal transfer of objects, it is telling to the importance of their quest to look at the current impact of the Second World War (WWII) on provenance research. Whereas the current conflict’s focus on cultural treasures deals primarily with antiquities, WWII’s looting covered a longer stretch on the timeline of art history. The Nazis famously looted works from all over Europe, and the academic, legal, museum and art market players of today are still sorting through the aftermath. Legal claims to well-known pieces of art in public and private collections still frequent the mediascape; who can forget the sultry look of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the damsel once in distress, who now resides in the Neue Gallery?

There are a variety of resources used by provenance researchers to trace the ownership of cultural property through the war years, and the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) libraries have compiled a World War II Provenance Bibliography that includes more than 200 entries. Books, periodicals, subscription databases, and open-access websites populate the bibliography, and researchers can fine tune their searches in a variety of ways, including by language, title and resource location.

A key reference and purported bible for provenance researchers found in the Bibliography is the appropriately titled The AAM Guide to Provenance Research (2001). Available on site at all four NYARC libraries, this book was compiled to address the urgent need for a manual to help deal with the onslaught of provenance issues surrounding the WWII era that came to light in the 1990s. Authored by Nancy H. Yeide, Amy L. Walsh, and Konstantin Akinsha in coalition with the American Association of Museums (AAM), this book is divided into two parts, with the first forty pages introducing the user to the importance, basics, and principles of provenance research, and the remainder dealing specifically with Holocaust-era provenance research. Eleven appendices are included, providing the researcher with further resources to consult, such as Appendix H: The Art Looting Investigation Unit List (ALIU) and Appendix F: Selected Art Libraries and Photographic Archives. (The Frick Art Reference Library, the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Met, and the Museum of Modern Art Library are included in this list.)

A recent acquisition of interest by the Frick Art Reference Library and the Thomas J. Watson Library found in the Bibliography is Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: the Hermann Goering Collection (2009) by the aforementioned Nancy H. Yeide. A leader in provenance research, she attempts to systematically catalog Herman Goering’s paintings collection in this massive tome. Goering, a self-proclaimed Renaissance man and second in command to Adolf Hitler, amassed one of the most impressive collections of art of the past century. He navigated the Nazi-occupied European art scene to his advantage, grabbing treasures as he pleased. The catalog presents the reader with a real-life example of the battle provenance researchers face when dealing with artworks that changed hands during the WWII era, in that the remarkable catalog is, as Yeide acknowledges, both a work in progress as well as a foundation for further research. For example, there are almost 100 works that fall in the category of “Uncertain Associations,” due to insufficient evidence. The sheer abundance of more than 2,000 works included in the collection will amaze the art critic and novice alike, and shed light on the lengthy struggle provenance researchers contend with when art changes hands amidst the backdrop of war.

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