New York Museums to Disclose Artwork Looted by Nazis
Museums in New York that exhibit artworks looted by Nazis during the Holocaust are now required by law to let the public know about those dark chapters in their provenance through placards displayed with the stolen objects.
At least 600,000 pieces of art were looted from Jewish people before and during World War II, according to experts. Some of that plunder wound up in the world’s great museums.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law in August requiring museums to put up signs identifying pieces looted by the Nazis from 1933 through 1945.
The new rule comes as many museums in the U.S. and Europe are also reckoning with collections that contain numerous objects looted from Asia, Africa and other places during centuries of colonialism.
It isn’t clear how many pieces of art now on display will wind up being labeled as Nazi loot, and disagreements have already arisen over certain artworks with a complicated history.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, said it had identified 53 works in its collection as having been seized or sold under duress during the Nazi era.
All of those objects were obtained by the museum after being returned to their rightful owners. But Andrea Bayer, the museum’s deputy director for collections and administration, said the public still should know about their history.
“People should be aware of the terrible cost to people during World War II as these confiscations took place, and how these peoples’ treasures that they loved and had been in their families, had been torn from them at the same time their lives were disrupted,” she said.
New York Museums Artwork Looted by Nazis
The museum, however, does not intend to put up such a sign on a Picasso painting called “The Actor,” which it received as a gift in 1952.
That painting was once owned by Jewish businessman Paul Leffmann, who fled Germany — first for Italy, then ultimately to Brazil — to escape the Nazis. As Leffmann liquidated assets in 1938, he sold the painting to Paris art dealers for $13,200.
Leffmann’s great-grandniece, Laurel Zuckerman, sued the Metropolitan Museum in 2016, claiming it was a bargain-basement sale price that reflected the family’s desperation to flee Europe. The museum countered that the price was actually high for an early Picasso at the time. A U.S. court eventually dismissed the lawsuit.
Lawrence Kaye, one of the lawyers who represented Zuckerman, said that despite that outcome, the museum should still put up a placard with the painting’s disputed history.
“I believe the law would cover this piece. It was dismissed on technical grounds and I believe under the broad definition of what this law means under the statute, it should be covered,” Kaye said.
Researching the provenance of an object has gotten easier in the digital age and some museums have launched efforts to identify artworks with a problematic ownership history.
New York law had already required museums to report works believed to have been stolen during the Nazi period to the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest database on stolen art.