Has New York’s law aimed at identifying Nazi-looted art in museums worked?

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In May last year, New York State became the first US jurisdiction to introduce a law requiring museums to label Nazi-looted art in their galleries. The primary goal of the amendment to the state education law, which came into effect in August, “was to make sure we don’t forget”, says Anna Kaplan, the former New York State Senator who introduced the amendment. “We have to make sure we do everything possible to teach this dark past to the next generation.”

Kaplan was motivated by a survey carried out in 2020 by the Claims Conference, which represents Jewish people seeking compensation for the Holocaust. The survey found that 60% of New Yorkers aged between 18 and 39 did not know that six million Jewish people were murdered by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

But the law cannot be enforced. Kaplan concedes it is largely up to museums to implement and police the law themselves. “We are hoping that museums will do the right thing,” she says. “Every museum has its own legwork and due diligence to do.”

The law reflects the growing pressure on museums in the US and Europe to be more transparent about the violent origins of some of the art they hold. As a result, provenance research—once a niche area— is becoming a mainstream concern for both US and European cultural institutions.

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis looted hundreds of thousands of paintings, sculptures and art objects from Jewish people, many thousands of which ended up in museums around the world. Under the non-binding 1998 Washington Principles, governments agreed to publish provenance research on Nazi-looted art in public collections and seek a “just and fair solution” with the heirs.

The amendment to the New York state education law reads: “Every museum which has on display any identifiable works of art known to have been created before 1945 and which changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means in Europe during the Nazi era (1933-45) shall, to the extent practicable, prominently place a placard or other signage acknowledging such information along with such display.”

Many museums already publish provenance information online, and some already include information on previous Jewish owners on labels.

New York’s Neue Galerie acquired the most famous painting in its collection—Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907)—after it had been returned to the heir of the original Jewish owner, Maria Altmann. It was seized by the Gestapo in Vienna in 1939. “The painting’s history has been clearly displayed at all times in our galleries and on our website,” the Neue Galerie said in a statement. “The museum welcomes efforts to increase transparency around looted and dispossessed work and is taking steps to ensure it is in compliance with the new law.”

Including provenance on labels takes museums away from the “white cube” idea that became the archetype for museums in the 20th century. “The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art,’” wrote the former New York Times art critic Brian O’Doherty in an influential Artforum article in 1976. “The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself.” But the white cube concept appears increasingly outdated as museums strive to reflect the societies in which they operate.

Mounting pressure

Pressure from the public is also mounting, with groups like the Commission for Looted Art in Europe and the World Jewish Restitution Organisation in New York pushing curators to adequately communicate the origins of art seized by the Nazis. The American Alliance of Museums, meanwhile, maintains the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal. It currently lists close to 30,000 objects at 179 participating museums, including 16 museums in New York with 2,370 Nazi-era pieces.

Some museums have become proactive, staging exhibitions that focus on the provenance of their collections. At the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a display of the Benin bronzes—looted by British troops in 1897 from what is now Nigeria—includes video statements by German and Nigerian scientists, artists and representatives of the museums and the royal family in Benin City.

The Kunstmuseum in Bern has held two exhibitions about Nazi-looted art after it inherited Cornelius Gurlitt’s tainted collection. In New York, the Jewish Museum staged an exhibition in 2021 called Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art.

“The goodwill is already there in many museums and they are already doing the right thing,” says Agnes Peresztegi, a lawyer specialising in Nazi-looted art and the former president of the New York-based Commission for Art Recovery. While recognising the good intentions of the new law, she doubts it will spark a new transparency drive at museums. “Will a museum that has not been forthcoming suddenly start to do the right thing because of this law?” she asks. “Probably not.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art lists 53 works on its website that have been restituted to the heirs of the original owners. “We have followed this legislation closely and we are now developing labels that will appear alongside these works in the galleries,” says Ann Bailis, a spokeswoman for the museum. “The Met embraces the new requirement as it encourages the telling of important histories.”

But given that it is up to museums to determine which works fall under the new law, art that remains contested is unlikely to be labelled as such. Whether or not a sale 80 years ago was involuntary can be difficult to evaluate—and opinions can vary. The Met has rejected a claim by the heirs of the German Jewish art historian Curt Glaser for a painting he sold at auction in Berlin in 1933, Abraham Bloemaert’s Moses Striking the Rock (1596). The fact that the dispute remains unsettled means the museum and heirs have until now failed to agree on the wording for a label, says David Rowland, a New York-based lawyer who represents the Glaser heirs.

“Who determines whether art changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means in Europe during the Nazi era?” asks Nicholas O’Donnell, a Boston-based lawyer specialising in Nazi-looted art. “What degree of certainty is required? The law does not say. The law could act as a disincentive to further inquiry.”

O’Donnell also wonders whether the law might contradict the First Amendment, which protects freedom of expression. “Distilled to its essence, the law requires the museums to say something,” he says. “And yet we live in an age where social media posts trumpet obvious falsehoods.” The First Amendment, he notes, doesn’t even allow the government to insist on corrections by private actors.

Still, Wesley Fisher, the director of research at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, says he can imagine other US states introducing legal requirements similar to the New York amendment in the future. “But hopefully they will do it in a more clarified way,” he says.

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