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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Looted Art Treasures

Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and
Patton inspect Nazi looted art
treasures, April 1945
If you're Jewish or had wealthy Jewish relatives killed in the Holocaust, you might be entitled a valuable work of art. Many of the works by famous artists whom museums 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. Many have been returned, where ownership is relatively clear. But all too often, heirs have simply disappeared.

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 still almost two-hundred thousand 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 taken steps to identify the rightful owners. As one might guess, it's a situation custom made to attract fraudulent claims. There are those who believe that art which 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."
Portrait of a Young Man, Raphael,
Missing since 1939

For years there have been many periodic "dust-ups" in this controversy. 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 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. It would seem this may be 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.

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