Several weeks ago, failed art dealer Julian Agnew wrote a letter to the Financial Times questioning whether too much fuss was being made about restitutions for art stolen during the Nazi-era. After all, Agnew complained, shouldn’t these claims have an end point?
Agnew’s haughty impatience is contradicted by the actual record of postwar governments and institutions in dealing with these claims. Another recent letter to the FT points out that with the notable exception of the National Gallery in London, few museums have taken restitution research seriously:
Despite the example set by the National Gallery, many public museums across Europe, some justifiably, plead lack of resources as the reason for not having undertaken research into the provenance of their collections. As 17 years have elapsed since 44 governments committed their museums to this work at Washington, this is a highly unsatisfactory position. The sooner such research is conducted and finalised the nearer might be the time when the process may come to an end. It is also important to state the fact that a large number of looted objects may never be claimed because tragically there is no one left to actually claim. That should not devalue the efforts to return objects where there are survivors and their descendants.
Today’s news that Charles Goldstein, a central figure in some of the most important restitution claims in recent memory, has died should also remind people like Agnew of the gross inappropriateness of their comments. Here’s the New York Times on Goldstein and his campaign:
Mr. Goldstein, a lawyer with the firm Herrick, Feinstein, was counsel to the Commission for Art Recovery, which estimates that it has recovered or helped recover more than $160 million worth of stolen art since it was established in 1997 by Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress. The commission is also affiliated with the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
“Charles Goldstein was the unsung hero of art restitution,” Mr. Lauder said this week.
The commission’s goal is to compel European governments to identify and return art that the Nazis looted from public and private collections or that the owners were forced to sell. That includes spoils of war confiscated from the Nazis by the victors, including the Soviet Union.
The Times also points out that those who ought to be most interested in righting the wrongs of the Nazi era have been the least helpful:
“Surprisingly,” Mr. Goldstein told ARTnews in 2008, “it was easier to secure recovery of art looted during the Holocaust from the Slovakian dealer than from Hungarian and Russian government officials.”
Five years later, he told ARTnews that, except in Austria, not much had changed. “We have not made progress in getting countries to examine their collections,” he said. Museums generally do not either, he added.
Charles Goldstein Dies at 78; Sought Return of Art Looted by Nazis (The New York Times)