Paris, 26 November 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).
Marc Masurovsky, art historian and co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), has centred his research on the issue of goods which were stolen during the Second World War. He is one of three authors of the book Oeuvres volées, destins brisés (2013), based on the various stories of collections of artworks belonging to Jews which were seized by the Nazis. Art Media Agency met with Masurovsky, who spoke to us about his book, his ethics and morality in general.
Could you tell me a bit more about yourself and your job?
I was born in Paris, and I took my Baccalauréat at the École Alsacienne, after which I went to the United States to study at the University of Washington, where I am currently living. I developed an interest in issues linked to the Holocaust when I was in my twenties, then I started a job at the Ministry of Justice with a focus on war criminals. From there, I began researching the financial and commercial side of the Holocaust and the Second World War. It was during this time that I really started to focus on art theft; goods which were illegally seized in Europe and worldwide. In fact, it was while working for my PhD that I became particularly interested in matters concerning spoliation.
What first interested you about the seizure of goods?
I don’t know, I think it is a combination of things. I first entered into the subject through enquiries that I was making into war criminals in the United States. I spent my entire childhood in Paris so I suppose I had a fundamental awareness of it, as did lot of my friends whose families had been in the Resistance or victims of the war. That all played a role in the end, but you never know exactly how. When I began working at the American Ministry of Justice, I examined a lot of documents which addressed the collusions between war criminals and the intelligence services, the way in which many of these collaborators where able to escape justice by moving into jobs in finance or commerce, which were never enquired into simply because they were part of an influential and protected network. This was one of the post-war problems, this lack of justice – an absence even, at times. Part of the desire to rebuild was to redeem people who had been involved in this shady, dubious business during the occupation. It was part of a historical continuity between the war and the post-war periods.
You are one of the authors of Oeuvres volées, destins brisés. What led you to write this book on the theme of artworks which were seized by war criminals?
It took me quite some time! I began to work on spoliations during the Swiss banking scandal, when many accounts were “escheated”. The scandal erupted in 1995, and the enquiry dealt with the question of artworks that had originally been deposited in banks by Jews fleeing the Holocaust, which Swiss banks failed to return, and were thought to have re-sold numerous valuable pieces which did not belong to them. But our aim was not to include these artworks as part of the general financial regulations that were being made with regards to bank accounts. It was of utmost importance that the rightful owners were able to reclaim their goods without being forced to accept compensation, which is much lower in value than their actual artworks. We decided to focus on artworks because it was a major issue which had not been addressed in an official and correct manner. In September 1997, I created a small NGO called Holocaust Art Restitution Project, with the aim to document these spoliations and make this information publicly available. The point of this was to aid the research of the claimants as well as that of museums and galleries, which could use the documents to inform themselves on what they were purchasing. It is a job which requires enormous amounts of research, and will probably take five generations’-worth of work, but you have to start somewhere!
I imagine that the work required to document everything is enormous!
It is important to create a comparative work because there are archives in France, Germany, the United States, sometimes even in Switzerland because the objects move. It is crazy the amount of work it takes to trace “who bought what”, how it was re-sold, in which particular collection, etc. It really is insane, it should be a collaborative work, but unfortunately this is not the case. The job does takes a lot of time.
The information which has been brought together for this book are of a historical, documentary and scientific nature, although the book itself contains a lot of illustrations. Does this almost-romantic style serve to make the book more accessible?
Yes, you have to make it as accessible as possible, and therefore it is important to emphasise the human aspect of the things, the couple’s life, their collection, but also what happened to them, because at the end of the day it is their tragedy and their drama that led them to be separated with their works of art. There is the reaction, everything that comes with it: it is a forced separation, a forced sale, requisition, theft, expropriation. It is an act of violence – not physically, but psychologically. It is not about the value of the objects, but what they represent. It takes time for that to heal, and there are a lot of people who never forget. We tend to play down this type of loss, but they are important because they occupy a particular place in the mind.
Speaking of value, do you think that some works have benefited from their history, marked by seizure or theft?
Yes, they are iconic, but its a delicate idea. There is a direct correlation between a particular aspect of a work and its value. For example, Le portrait d’un jeune homme by Raphaël which disappeared in Bavaria is one of the most sought-after works in the world, because it has a symbolic value; we say that as fine a painting as it is, its historic value exceeds its artistic value. I think that we can say that with all sorts of objects which are still at large, though. There is the painting Marais aux songes by Max Ernst, for example, which is said to have been destroyed. I am convinced however that it survived – it was stolen with several other avant-garde surrealist works which survived the war, so I am certain that it is somewhere. It will resurface when its owners put it up for sale. Then there are certain works which are never offered at auction because they are too “visible”, and they go directly to the owners.
What do you think of the Cornelius Gurlitt case?
It really reminds us that the majority of works which were illegally seized are in specific collections. There are dealers who were absolutely unprincipled, who collaborated with the Vichy regime and the Germans, and who were never bothered by the Allies after the war. They continued their work and were able to profit from their thefts, or indeed the thefts of others. From a moral and ethical point of view, is is absolutely unacceptable, but from a judicial point of view, Gurlitt evidently had the German law on his side. There are moral rules which should be applied on a political level, because in general, the restitution of works is impossible if you apply the law itself from a strictly technical point of view. The requirements would disgust anyone, especially now, so we must now rely on a higher order of morality, or ethics linked to crimes against humanity. But this is never simple.
It involves a lot of things.
In the context of the Gurlitt case, for example, if France had spoken up – because nothing was said until now – that would have made the task of returning the work much easier, for those in France who are still missing works. For now however, there is a very worrying silence. France has the power to repatriate certain objects which are in the state’s possession.
Do you think that public visibility of these works is essential for their restitution?
We must make everything public. It is the only way to understand exactly what happened, the only way that people can see if it is their property, and it allows researchers do their job, to find out how the collection was formed.
Do you think some of the works should be returned to Cornelus Gurlitt ?
There are some which he bought in good faith, and I think they should be returned to him, but there is no way of making a decision without having done a thorough and comprehensive review of his entire collection. Essentially though, there are works which belong to him by right, so he has the right to take them back. But those which were bought by his father in France or Holland or Germany, absolutely not!
There must be a lot of research to be done.
There is a lot of work to do, but it is not an impossible task. It simply needs Germany to start thinking more pragmatically instead of hiding behind judicial principles which are hostile to restitution and victims’ rights. The Gurlitt case is a perfect example of what is not working within countries, who need to come to a decision. It is a helpless struggle, the only difference now being that there are more people who are aware of what is happening. We will eventually see changes or reforms on a political level which will facilitate greater transparency.
Besides greater collaboration between institutions, what do you think can be done to increase transparency and bring justice to these families and their stories?
It is a job which must be done on all levels, from public powers and institutions right down to education. Researchers should work together, archives need to be open and accessible. Organisations should stop keeping everything concealed under the pretence of protecting the right to privacy, and hiding documents because the name of the individual is on it. That violates everything that we hold sacred in terms of historical research. It requires more transparency on every level; it is not about embarrassing people, but simply recounting what has happened. The market needs to collaborate because there are a large number of documents in the hands of dealers, galleries, auction houses, museums, etc., where there is a total lack of transparency; indeed these institutions are very hostile towards any attempt to clarify and open up their inventories to the public.
Do you feel as though we are moving towards this transparency?
There has been some progress, but we need to move forward a lot more quickly. We are in 2013 after all. We need concerted action – a real effort needs to be made. This is not just about the families and their stories, but also about setting an example for future generations. If we do nothing it is as if we are condoning theft. This must change, and to do this we must change market practices and start offering a greater degree of transparency, as you say, as well as honesty. If you know that a work was stolen, don’t buy it.