Masterpieces of Moral Justice: Who is Heir to Plundered Art?

Who has claim to art plundered during the Holocaust?

Panelists discuss the fate of plundered Jewish art at 22nd annual Robert Salomon Morton Lecture.
March 20th, 2014

Seventy years after the end of World War II and the Holo­caust, the fate of plundered, hidden, or vanished works of art during that time remains a strongly debated topic—one a panel of experts tackled Tuesday afternoon at Northeastern University’s 22nd annual Robert Salomon Morton Lecture.

The event, held at the visitor center, was part of Northeastern University’s Holocaust Awareness Week, which is presented by the Human­i­ties Center and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities in part­ner­ship with the Holocaust Awareness Committee.

The title of the event dou­bled as a question panelists were challenged with answering: “Mas­ter­pieces and Moral Justice: Who is Heir to Plundered Art?” The panel comprised Douglas Davidson, special envoy for Holo­caust issues at the U.S. Department of State; Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Con­fer­ence on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany; Marc Masurovsky, director of the Provenance Research Training Program of the European Shoah Legacy Institute; and Victoria Reed, curator for provenance at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Masurovsky asserted there are different kinds of heirs and that no matter how much people want to avoid the legal debate, the des­ig­nated owner must be taken into account when determining restitution.

“It doesn’t mean that the people in what we call the provenance (own­er­ship history) are the real, or historic, or actual owners, but rather who we refer to as current pos­ses­sors,” Masurovsky said. “That is what opens the can of worms.”

Davidson said the State Department has focused more attention on these matters of art resti­tu­tion in recent years. He noted that we might be entering a new era in which plundered art from this time will be found more in private collections; he cited one instance from 2011 in which Bavarian tax author­i­ties dis­cov­ered of a cache of about 1,400 works of art in Munich apartment, many of which were con­fis­cated by the Nazis and were believed destroyed during World War II.

He noted that the 2013 film The Mon­u­ments Men, which follows a WWII platoon tasked with rescuing art stolen by the Nazis, has brought even more attention to the issue.

“We are entering uncharted ter­ri­to­ries,” Davidson said. “I think we will try to assist as best we can to work through this issue so paintings that were looted will be restored to the proper owners.”

Laurel Leff, chair of the Holo­caust Awareness Committee and associate director of Northeastern’s Jewish Studies Program, mod­er­ated the event. Leff, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and the Stotsky Professor of Jewish His­tor­ical and Cultural Studies, commended the panelists for their expertise and com­mit­ment to the panel discussion’s topic—which she said was an important part of history and one she was eager to see explored at this year’s event.

Fisher, for his part, focused his pre­sen­ta­tion on the global Jewish community’s role in resolving these matters of ownership. He said questions about rightful own­er­ship of plundered objects must focus not only on high-​​end art works but also Jewish cer­e­mo­nial art or Judaica, par­tic­u­larly pieces that belonged to an entire com­mu­nity and not just one person or family.

“In par­tic­ular with communal Judaica the issues are, in some respects, even more complex,” Fisher said. “This is a much broader matter.”

Later, Reed discussed how a painting’s provenance could tell more about past owners than the painting itself. For example, she cited a 17th-​​century Dutch painting titled “Portrait of a Man and Women in an Interior,” which the MFA purchased in 1941.

Based on Reed’s research, it’s believed the piece was taken from German art dealer Walter Westfeld’s pos­ses­sion at some point between 1936 and 1941, as a result of per­se­cu­tion by the Nazis.

“In this case, the provenance research yielded a lack of infor­ma­tion about the painting itself,” Reed said. “We learned a great deal about the life and career of Walter West­feld, and it was his story, not that of the story of the painting, that emerged. And his is the more important story that infuses the portrait with a sig­nif­i­cance that goes beyond status symbol and the painting becomes a means of commemoration.”

Northeastern’s Holo­caust Awareness Committee publicly remembers the Holo­caust every year, not only as historical fact and a memorial to its millions of victims, but also as a warning that horrors of the past must never be repeated. The Morton Memorial Lecture was created as a way of memorializing the spirit of reconciliation and understanding that Morton, longtime caretaker of the Hillel Foundation at Harvard University, embodied.

- By Joe O’Connell


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