More than fifty years after World War II, a 17th century Flemish painting by Frans Snyders began its journey home to the descendants of Holocaust survivors who lost the painting to the Nazis during one of the darkest periods in our world's history. On November 20, 2000, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. announced its decision to return the painting entitled: “Still Life With Fruit and Game” after concluding it had been looted by the Nazis during the Second World War. The National Gallery's announcement came after a year and a half of research into the painting's provenance. The painting's previous owners included Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's second in command in the Nazi regime, and Karl Haberstock, one of the Nazis' principal art dealers. In 1990, the painting was donated to the National Gallery, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, by a New York art dealer, Herman Shickman, himself a Jewish refugee who had fled Nazi Germany nearly fifty years earlier. While there are numerous government and private resources that house some information on stolen artwork, there is no central registry. As a result, original owners have no efficient way to look for their stolen artwork and legitimate sellers and good faith purchasers have no efficient method of ascertaining whether the work they want to sell or purchase has been reported stolen. Claimants must rely on bills of sale, insurance records, exhibition catalogs, and provenance to prove title. Plaintiffs whose artwork was looted during the Holocaust face enormous administrative difficulties in proving ownership. Thefts, in these cases, occurred more than fifty years ago and, since then, these works of art may have crossed international borders and changed hands numerous times. Plaintiffs may also have to prove that there was no prior sale, that they did not voluntarily relinquish title, and that the art was in fact looted. As a result, Holocaust survivors are often put in the difficult position of having to engage in exhaustive and expensive historical and factual research. The history of the Snyders painting illustrates the complex issues surrounding these cases and the difficulties involved in locating Nazi-looted artwork and restoring it to its rightful owners. In the final days of President Clinton's administration, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States issued its report entitled: Plunder and Restitution: The U.S. and Holocaust Victims' Assets. The report purports to be “the most comprehensive examination ever conducted of the federal government's handling of the assets of Holocaust victims that came into its possession or control” after the war. This article concludes urging the Bush administration and the Congress to continue the important work done by the Commission by establishing a central art registry database containing the archival information that is now being released from government archives. A central registry represents the best method of giving original owners and their heirs the ability to locate artwork that was stolen from them during the Holocaust. At the same time, it will make it easier for good faith purchasers to investigate the artwork's history and may better prevent the sale of stolen artwork.
Paulina M. Collins,
Has "The Lost Museum" Been Found? Declassification of Government Documents and Report on Holocaust Assets Offer Real Opportunity to "Do Justice" for Holocaust Victims on the Issue of Nazi Looted Art,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol54/iss1/6