The Israel Museum opened two new exhibitions of Holocaust-era art Monday, giving light to nearly 100 paintings and Jewish ceremonial artifacts stolen by Nazi looters during the Second World War.
Hundreds of Jerusalemites braved a blustery, cold night and a weather forecast of snow to attend the gala opening of “Looking for Owners: Custody, Research and Restitution of Art Stolen in France during World War II.” The exhibit includes 58 paintings by some of the biggest names in European art, representing hundreds of years and a wide variety of painting styles and topics. Paintings include non-Jewish works by artists such as Paul Cézanne and Édouard Manet, as well as Jewish painters such as Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann and others.
Israel Museum officials stress that while most of the art was stolen from Jewish collectors and private homes, some of the works were taken from French non-Jews and culture institutions. Many were sold in “legitimate” commercial transactions for prices far below market value or in forced sales. Following the war, many pieces were returned to France, but restoring the material to the rightful owners proved impossible because many or most of the original owners were killed, both in concentration camps and as a direct result of the war.
Superior Aryan Culture
In a gallery featuring many priceless masterpieces, one of the most sobering features of the exhibition is a series of eight photographs documenting the theft of French art. There are images of hundreds of classic paintings, boxed up and awaiting shipment to Germany, one shows the walls of the Paris Central Train Station laden with fine art, and another shows a similar view of the private homes of some Nazi higher-ups. And of course, no exhibition on Holocaust-era theft would be complete without images of stolen Torah scrolls and other Judaica.
As with many things Nazi-related, the numbers are astounding. From April 1941 to July 1944, 138 railcars were packed with 4,174 cases of stolen artwork and shipped to Germany – an average of more than three per month. In all, more than 22,000 objects were taken during this period, some of the nearly 60,000 pieces of art looted during the war.
Museum officials consider the “second” exhibition, entitled “Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocuast,” to be secondary in importance to the French exhibit, but in many ways it is more descriptive of every day Jewish life in prewar Europe than the primary exhibition. With more than 50 Jewish ceremonial objects, paintings, books and prints, all stolen from Jewish families throughout the Third Reich, the artifacts are stunning in their simplicity. Museum Director James Snyder said many of the objects, particularly the Judaica, would not be considered “valuable” in the international art marketplace, but nonetheless they are an important record of the history of European Jewry.
In addition to providing a non-traditional history of the Holocaust period in France, the exhibit highlights one of the most painful subjects for survivors of the tragedy: restitution and poverty. Museum sources say efforts to bring the exhibit to Jerusalem have been under way for more than a decade, but have hit stumbling blocks along the way from French authorities and culture institutions such as the Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR), the current custodian of many of the French works, who were concerned about possible restitution claims by Holocaust survivors in Israel.
The concern was not unfounded: In the mid-1990s a legal battle surrounding a loan by Austria’s Leopold Foundation to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art caused Attorney General Robert Morgenthau to prevent the return of several paintings by early 20th century artist Egon Schiele to Austria because of claims by two families that exhibits in the show belonged to their relatives murdered during by the Nazis. The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest legal authority, eventually decided against the plaintiffs, but the case set a precedent for future claims.
In order to host the exhibition, the Israel Museum pushed the Knesset to the Immunity from Seizure Law preventing survivors or heirs from claiming ownership of the property. The controversial bill became law in 2007, and museum officials say that many of the law’s detractors eventually came to support the law, for a variety of reasons.
“The law is important because there was no way France was going to agree to let us host this exhibition here,” said Dena Scher, the Israel Museum Foreign Press Officer. “People began to realize that if we don’t pass the law we are never going to see these paintings.”
Furthermore, Scher said the law is a positive one that moves not only to protect the rights of Holocaust survivors, but also provides a mechanism to facilitate potential claims.
“The law only says that survivors can’t lay claim to the art HERE in Israel. But it also stipulates that the lending country, in this case France, must have a functioning body to adjudicate survivor claims. France does – there is a tribunal that meets once or twice a year to listen to claims.
“In addition, we had to publish the works at least one month before the exhibition, to allow the public to survey the works and file claims if they had any. All the works in this show were put on the Justice Ministry website on December 28 and stayed there for a month. No claims were made, and the material was prepared for shipment at the end of last month,” she said.
The joint exhibition is set to run through June 3. A follow-up show is scheduled at the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme over the summer.