Ever since the early 1950s, the art world had kept a dirty little secret. A surprisingly large percentage of the works hanging on the walls of museums all over the world are stolen. No, the museums didn't resort to cat-burglar tactics to fill their walls with masterpieces. It wasn't that overt. But by the same token, they also cannot claim to be innocent bystanders either. The thieves were German Nazis during World War II. The victims were European Jews and anyone else who stood in the way of Hitler's juggernaut as it rolled through Europe between 1937 and 1944. The Germans treated the art treasures from all ages that they confiscated as spoils of war. Their tastes were, for the most part, pretty conservative. They liked the literal, the realistic, the erotic, and the mythological. They hated abstract and expressionistic pieces, and had only a mild liking for work as recent as the Impressionist era. What they liked, they hung on their walls, what they didn't went into storage, and what they hated they destroyed or sold for quick cash during the war.
With the fall of the Third Reich, things were a mess in Europe. Nearly every mainland economy was in shambles. Hard cash was in short supply. Great art wasn't. Instances of smaller art masterpieces being sold in military PX's were not unheard of. Allied military officers were known to have rummaged through the Nazi art stash, picking and choosing that which appealed to them not unlike their German counterparts had just a few years before. As things settled down in the ensuing years, the trade in stolen art became much more discreet, civilised, and institutionalised. Much of it was funnelled through Switzerland, Austria, and Bulgaria. And all of it was dirt-cheap by pre-war standards. First and second-rate museums all over the world saw a chance to shore up weaknesses in their collections at bargain basement prices. The works were sold through "reputable" international dealers and galleries. At least, at those prices, the museums hoped they were reputable, or in some cases, found it in their best economic interests to consider them so.
For some forty years, the "secret" was kept. Then two things happened. First was the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Records that had once abetted those keeping this secret fell open to public scrutiny. And second, computers now made gathering, analysing, and disseminating these records a relatively simple task. Now, suddenly, major and minor museums all over the world, but especially in the well-heeled ones in the U.S., are scrambling to make public amends. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts recently posted on their Web site seven paintings they think may have been stolen, in hopes of finding their rightful owners. It has over 200 more with "shady" provenances for the war years. The Metropolitan in New York has over 300 in this category. The Museum of Modern Art has fifteen suspects. The Getty in LA and the Chicago Art Institute have a lesser but significant number as well. Museums in Cleveland, Seattle, North Carolina, and Texas have taken similar steps to try and cleanse themselves of their Holocaust art. It's a relatively safe step. Public penitence at this point in time is good PR and despite computerisation and new-found European records, the fact is, after forty years, the human link with this art is largely broken. When museums are reduced to searching through the Internet for rightful owners they already know the chances of finding them are slim to none and in the absence of claims, their stolen masterpieces are still relatively safe. But that's another dirty little secret.