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28 October, 2012
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Looted Art
If you're Jewish or had wealthy Jewish relatives killed in the Holocaust, you might be entitled a valuable work of art. Right now, in Washington, DC, there is a meeting going on attended by delegations from 44 nations and 13 other organisations, the purpose of which is to tackle a thorny problem that has begun to bedevil art museums, galleries, and auction houses around the world. Many of the works by famous artists whom they wish to display and/or sell have disputed histories, most of which date back to the 1930s and the widespread Nazi confiscation of art from Jewish families headed for concentration camps. The figures are staggering! The value of assets looted has been set at between $9 billion and $14 billion, the current value of which is now about ten times those figures.

The French now have custody of about 2,000 works of art stolen from European Jewish families, some as prominent as the Rothschilds. Elsewhere, there are another 218,000 pieces in dispute--nearly a quarter of all art in Europe at the start of World War II. France has made a valiant effort to return their stash by posting them on the Internet and taking steps to identify the rightful owners. As one might guess, it's a situation custom designed to attract fraudulent claims. The conference in Washington hopes to set standards for proving ownership of disputed works. There are those who believe that art that cannot be returned, should be auctioned off and the proceeds distributed to needy Holocaust survivors. A spokesman for the World Jewish Conference refers to these works of art as "the last prisoners of war."

Hardly a week goes by in which there is not a new "dust-up" in this controversy. Recently a Monet water lily painting loaned to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was identified as having been stolen from Paul Rosenberg, a Jewish collector. Just the week before, two paintings, Dead City III and Portrait of Wally were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They were borrowed from an Austrian foundation. A New York court has blocked their return to Austria because of Jewish claims in this country. A similar question comes up when confiscated works are sold to unknowing buyers. Now, it would seem, is a risky time to buy art of European origin. Now, as never before, the provenance (history of ownership) of a work is of utmost importance. Let the buyer beware.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
1 December 1998


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