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The World Jewish Congress has made accusations about the provenance of works in US permanent collections

Museums race to list questionable paintings

New York

American museums are battling new charges that their collections hold art looted by the Nazis by promising to inventory works which might fall into that category.

The move by the country’s most important art institutions comes just as the World Jewish Congress (WJC) is pushing them for more rapid disclosure and attacking them for delaying until now. The WJC has cited the recent list compiled by British art museums as an example for the US museums to follow. It has also identified allegedly looted works. So far the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been charged with holding “Portrait of a man”, a 1597 painting by Peter Paul Rubens with the name of the Nazi dealer Karl Haberstock in its provenance. The Met has also been cited for holding “Guardroom with the Deliverance of St Peter” by David Teniers the Younger, which was described in a 1984 Met publication as having been looted from its Viennese owners by the Nazis. Both charges proved unfounded. The Rubens turned out to have been sold by Haberstock to an American collector in the 1920s before the dealer began his lucrative relationship with Hermann Goering. The Teniers was restituted after the war to its owners, who later donated the picture to the Met.

The Art Institute of Chicago admits that it holds the 1869 Gustave Courbet painting, “Rock at Hautepierre”, sold under duress in the 1930s by the Silberberg family of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), who have been active recently in recovering works that surfaced in museums in Israel, Berlin and the US.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is looking into the provenance of a fifteenth-century Madonna and Child panel by an artist known as the Master of the Bargello Judgement of Paris because it was once sold by another notorious Nazi dealer, Hans Wendland.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is petitioning the US Justice Department for the return of Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally”, is said to be considering claims on some undisclosed paintings in its collection.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is investigating “Still-life with fruit and game” by the sixteenth-century Flemish painter, Frans Snyders, which also passed through Haberstock’s hands.

News about “hot” paintings has tended not to come from legal claims brought against the museums, but from the WJC and from journalists doing basic research, often relying on the exhaustive Getty web site. Skeptical restitution experts have wondered why museums committed to scouring their collections for war loot are learning about questionable works in the press.

Pressure has forced museums to act, says the veteran restitution sleuth Willli Korte: “They have shaken up the museums to the extent that all of a sudden they find paintings and all of a sudden they are eager to publish information about red-flagged paintings in their collections.”

So far, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met and others expect to publish lists of suspect works by the middle of this month, just in time for hearings scheduled for 12 April in New York by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. “It should be critical of major art museums,” says Elan Steinberg of the WJC.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Museums race to list questionable paintings'