There are still many works of art stolen by the Nazis and never returned. Here's what the research needs

Researching the provenance of artworks stolen by the Nazis is a very complex subject. Here is what it needs, according to a specialist in the field.

American museums have a long history of contributing to the recovery and return of artworks stolen by the Nazis. Many of the Allied officers who served in the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section during and after World War II worked, as civilians, in American museums. Known today as the “Monuments Men,” these museum directors, curators, conservators and art historians recovered works of art stolen by the Nazis and returned them to their rightful owners after the war. Their heroic efforts made possible the return of hundreds of thousands of objects.

However, despite this initial success, the enormous scale of Nazi looting and the chaos of the art market in Europe during and after the war meant that an unknown number of works remained that went unnoticed and thus were never returned. Many of these still remain untraced today. And inevitably, some American museums have unknowingly acquired some of these objects over the past seventy-five years, and today it is the duty (as well as an ethical responsibility) of American museums to continue to research the provenance of the objects in their collections and to be transparent with the results of this research.

Since 1998, the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets has called for a renewed focus on provenance research during the Nazi era, and many American museums have taken important steps in this area. A firmer awareness of the difficulty of this type of research, more resources, and more collaborative relationships among scholars could greatly assist American museums in order to continue their efforts to identify, in their collections, artworks stolen by the Nazis and not returned.

La sala dei martiri al Jeu de Paume di Parigi, dove, durante l'occupazione della Francia, furono stivate diverse opere degli artisti considerati degenerati dai nazisti
The Hall of Martyrs at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, where, during the occupation of France, several works by artists considered degenerate by the Nazis were stowed away

Such research requires special professional skills: full understanding of the historical context of the relevant period, knowledge of archival materials in different countries, knowing how to access these resources and what to look for in archives, and knowledge of the languages used in the documents. One must also possess the ability to reach the archives necessary to access the most important documents. Recent efforts in digitization have meant that much material has been made available online (a major step forward in having better access to archives), but for most archives containing material on the provenance of objects, one still has to travel to repositories in person, both in Europe and the United States. In addition, research into the provenance of objects is not a short-term project. While it is an essential aspect of managing an art collection, the results cannot be obtained quickly and , indeed, are never fully complete. The complex and enduring nature of this research would therefore derive much benefit from the allocation of stable and permanent human resources, i.e., researchers in museums working full-time on these aspects, and this is not only in the United States, but worldwide. Much of the research on the provenance of objects, in fact, is temporary in nature, tied to research grants, or to individual projects. This is certainly a good start, but making use of the work of a researcher hired on a short-term contract does not allow institutional knowledge on the subject to develop. Each museum collection has a life of its own, has a unique history, and every time a research project has to be transferred from one person to another, or has to be suspended for a certain period of time, some of this institutional knowledge is lost. But if there is continuity in research into the provenance of potential new acquisitions, then the need for permanent researcher positions also arises: in this sense, some American museums (such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and, more recently, the Yale University Art Gallery), have hired permanent researchers whose job it is to study the history of their collections.

However, hiring permanent researchers and allocating the necessary travel expenses is no easy feat for several museums, many of which have to fundraise for every dollar they need. The art community, by emphasizing how important it is to be fully aware of the complexity of research into the provenance of objects in the Nazi era and how necessary it is to have dedicated staff hired on a permanent basis by museums, could encourage the allocation of additional resources.

In addition, beyond research on the provenance of collections, the purpose of American museums is, as mentioned, to make research findings transparent. Transparency leads to ethical stewardship of collections, and one of the best ways to demonstrate this is to include the provenance of objects in online collections databases. Transparency also promotes the dissemination of knowledge by allowing different researchers to make connections between objects in different collections. And even if the provenance of an object has not yet been fully ascertained, it is important to share as much information as possible, recognizing that research continues without ever stopping and that resources may be allocated that were not there before-this is how our degree of knowledge about the provenance of some objects can change. Privacy laws, which vary from country to country, can sometimes prevent researchers from sharing information, but there are always ways to collaborate while maintaining strict confidentiality. The advancement of knowledge about the provenance of objects in American collections (and collections around the world) could benefit from collaboration between American and European researchers, and cooperation is perhaps even more necessary between American and Italian researchers: there are indeed abundant archival materials in Italy, but about which American scholars have far less knowledge than about material from northern Europe.

It is the duty of American museums to be proactive in researching the provenances of objects in their collections and to be transparent in disseminating the results. The international community can help them in this endeavor by reiterating the need to receive more funding, aimed especially at creating positions for permanent researchers, and to be open to collaborations between scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

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