American museum directors have pledged to search their collections for works of art confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish families. They have also agreed to give special attention to claims that works of art in their possession might have been plundered by the Nazis.
In Worcester, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Task Force on the spoliation of art during the Nazi/World War II era issued the progress report that they had promised to make on 12 February when some of their members testified on the subject before the Committee on Banking and Financial Services of the US House of Representatives.
The meeting, normally of no interest to the press except for an exhaustive annual statistical survey of its member institutions, is hosted by a member museum every year. This time, the host was the Worcester Museum of Art. Not surprisingly, no claimants of works came to the event and all but the press conference was closed to reporters. Task Force chairman Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, made no mention of any specific claims on museum collections (including his own) when he called on his colleagues to respond promptly to any claim on any object allegedly confiscated during the Nazi era. He said that museums would scrutinise their own collections, and even invited claimants to come forward, but did not expect them to find much.
“It is important to remember that there have been only a few claims to date relating to World War II”, he said, “much press coverage, perhaps, but few claims. And we have no reason to believe, as of now, that the number of future claims will be huge. Nonetheless, we commit ourselves here and again to take each one most seriously, and act accordingly, in full recognition of all our legal and moral obligations.”
Mr de Montebello noted that while the directors supported researching the ownership histories of all works of art that they borrowed and the coordination of databases, they opposed legislation under review in the US Congress requiring every purchaser to conduct the equivalent of a title search for a work of art.
One noticeable change in policy was that the Task Force called on members who find works of stolen art from that era to make their findings public.
The museums directors insisted that there was complete agreement among them that their institutions, somewhat like the Motion Picture Industry in the US, were best off policing themselves. Yet that policing of the profession would be limited, the directors stressed, since the guidelines applied only to works of art confiscated during the 1933-45 Nazi era (not works sold under duress, according to the report), and did not extend to Greek and Roman antiquities or African and Mezo-American objects—thought to be the real “trouble areas” for American museums.
Once again, critics pointed out that the recommended guidelines lacked teeth—that the AAMD has no enforcement provision for members who violate them, not even its own mediation process.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Good faith, not law'