Nazis looted art from Jews during the reign of Hitler — more than half a million pieces — through theft, seizure, confiscation or other involuntarily means.
To this day, some of that artwork hangs on gallery walls, stands in statuary halls and sits under vitrine glass, as millions of museumgoers pass by unaware of the sordid provenance.
Now, under a law signed earlier this month by Gov. Kathy Hochul, museums must cop to that history — right next to the artwork.
An estimated 20% of art in Europe was looted by the Nazis, according to a 1997 article published by the National Archives of the United States.
Some 600,000 paintings owned by Jews were looted during World War II by the Nazis, according to a memorandum accompanying the legislation.
“The looting was not only designed to enrich the Third Reich but also integral to the Holocaust’s goal of eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture. Many museums now display this stolen art with no recognition of their provenance.”
Effective immediately, art that traded hands during that era must be accompanied by a placard disclaimer revealing that sordid provenance.
New York had already mandated that any art “known to have been created” before 1945 and “changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era (1933-1945) shall be sent to The Art Loss Register,” a clearinghouse in London.
Audit of Holocaust education
Hochul signed the legislation Aug. 10, part of a package of bills that also mandates an audit of Holocaust education across the state.
At the bills’ signing was Andrea Bolender, of Glen Head, the board chair and acting executive director of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove.
“It’s a long time in coming. Many of these pieces of artwork have been missing for decades and decades, and while it won’t return them to their rightful owners, it will allow people to understand that this was a stolen property, and it is being displayed by a museum, and it will have to be identified as such,” she said in an interview on Thursday.
About 100,000 items the Nazis stole are still missing. Greg Bradsher, a historian and archivist who wrote the 1997 article, said Friday night it was not known how much of the missing work that was recovered ended up back with the rightful owners or their heirs.
No provenance in many cases
Art in Europe that changed hands during the Holocaust era requires a museum to do detective work to figure out the provenance — starting from the creation of the work, through the labyrinth of buyer, seller, owner, gallery.
If a museum is dealing with art from that era — 1933 to 1945 — said Manhattan lawyer Lawrence Kaye, who specializes in art and cultural property law, “That puts the museum on notice that there could be a problem, and they should do a full-fledged provenance workup on the piece.”
He added: “In many of these cases, there is no provenance for that period of time. It just disappears. You’ll see ‘1935’ and then again in ‘1953’ — so that’s where the hard work comes. They have to find out, fill those gaps, about what happened.”
There are researchers who specialize specifically in provenance work, “tracing it back as best they can through each sale and each transfer — and maybe each theft,” he said.
The tool kit includes looking into archives that opened up across Europe in the years after World War II.
“Provenance researchers spend a lot of time in archives and libraries, they interview members of the family, in order to do their best to trace the history of the painting,” he said.
The provenance isn’t always black and white.
In 2019, a court ruled against one of Kaye’s clients, who had sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The client was the descendants of the Leffmann family who, in late 1938, sold Picasso’s “The Actor” to fund an escape from Nazi persecution. The descendants had alleged the painting was sold back then under duress. The painting, which was gifted in the 1950s to the Met by a Chrysler heir, is now worth over $100 million.
Placards for 53 works at Met
“This time interval has resulted in ‘deceased witness[es], faded memories, … and hearsay testimony of questionable value,’ as well as the likely disappearance of documentary evidence,” a judge wrote, quoting a prior ruling.
Ken Weine, a Met spokesman, cited the court’s ruling and said that Picasso was not subject to the law Hochul signed, and thus no placard would be displayed.
However, there are about 53 other works in the Met’s 1.5 million-object collection for which the state-mandated placards would be posted if the works are displayed, according to Met spokeswoman Ann Bailis.
State Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), one of the bill’s sponsors, said he was inspired to legislate because of the rise of what he says are totalitarian governments in Hungary and Russia, and “the right-wing zealots here in the United States."
He said the state Education Department is tasked with formulating rules and regulation for enforcement.
Lavine noted that the law also would apply to any work of art being displayed in New York from outside the state.
A search for each of Long Island's 300 or so municipalities — from Albertson to Yaphank — through the Commission for Looted Art in Europe’s database yielded no hits.
Andrea Bolender, the Holocaust museum official, said she knew of no Long Island museum or gallery with looted art.
“Art has always been stolen, repurchased — before the Holocaust, and even since the Holocaust. But I think it does give an idea of some provenance about what actually was taken, and that these people were members of society — and they were members of high society — that they owned this type of art and yet at the bottom line, they were still just Jews, and as much money as someone had and as status in society, the status of being a Jew de-elevated any other status that they had.”