Last Friday, August 20th, the Jewish Museum in New York opened its latest exhibit, called “Afterlives”. It shows more than 50 works by Picasso, Chagall, Cézanne, Courbet, and others, telling the stories of their restitution after being stolen from Jewish owners during the Holocaust. One of the exhibit’s centerpieces is Girl in Yellow and Blue with a Guitar by Henri Matisse which, after being stolen from the French Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, was found in the personal collection of Hermann Göring, the commander of the Nazi air force. The cause of returning art stolen by the Nazis has gotten a good deal of attention recently. Historical accuracy aside, popular films like The Monuments Men (2014) and Woman in Gold (2015) have shown the lengths that some will go to either reclaim or keep their hands on pieces of art.
Despite this, battles over art ownership continue. The most recent case that made news is the fight over a 1764 Bernardo Bellotto cityscape called Marketplace at Pirna, currently hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. The painting was once owned by a Jewish department store owner from Hamburg named Max Emden, who also owned two other works by the same artist. In 1938, Emden sold these three paintings to an art dealer working on behalf of the German government. The Nazis wished for the Bellotto cityscapes, among hundreds of thousands of other artworks, to be displayed in the planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. At the end of the Second World War, Emden’s paintings were confiscated by the Allied Forces in their search for Nazi loot. Two were returned to the German government, while the third, Marketplace at Pirna, was mistakenly given to the Dutch government. It had apparently been confused with a Bellotto painting of the same name previously owned by an Amsterdam resident. The Dutch government gave the painting to its listed owner, who then sold it to the New York art collector Samuel Kress in 1952. Then, in 1961, Kress donated his collection, including Marketplace at Pirna, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
In 2019, Germany’s Advisory Commission returned their two Bellotto paintings to Emden’s descendants because the original sale “was not undertaken voluntarily but was entirely due to worsening economic hardship” brought about due to restrictions on German Jews. The Houston museum, however, maintains that Emden sold the paintings voluntarily, allowing them to keep Marketplace at Pirna in their galleries. While European institutions have recognized their moral responsibility to return stolen artworks to the heirs of Holocaust victims, it seems that American museums and galleries like Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts have zero shame in putting forth an argument that boils down to “No one can make us give it back, therefore we won’t”. Gary Tinterow, the director of the museum, has stated outright that different standards apply to European governments and art institutions because of their direct culpability in anti-Semitic persecution. American museums, therefore, have no such moral obligation, instead being guided by “centuries of property law”. Robert M. Edsel, the chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation, has understandably described the museum’s rationale as “legalistic”. Furthermore, art and cultural heritage lawyer Leila Amineddoleh has also spoken out against the museum’s rationale. “U.S. museums and European bodies are not held to different standards because no entity, governmental or otherwise, should be acquiring stolen works.”
The museum’s legalistic modus operandi is not uncommon. David Rowland, who has represented the heirs of Holocaust-era art theft victims, has observed that American museums “are reverting to strictly legal approaches to claims”. While the Houston museum maintains that Max Emden had sold his paintings legally and without duress, they have also put forth the argument that the painting in their possession was never owned by Emden at all. The provenance section of their webpage on the painting once recently included Emden, but now has omitted his ownership from the record. They now argue that their Marketplace at Pirna is the one that was meant to be returned to Amsterdam instead of Emden’s painting. However, the inventory number on the frame demonstrates that this statement is false.
The Emden case comes at a time when art restitution is becoming increasingly difficult. Just last week, a new law in Poland sets a 30-year statute of limitations on stolen property allegations. This renders all Nazi art loot claims completely worthless at the legal level, including thousands of cases that have been under litigation for years. While Polish citizens seeking the return of their family’s art can no longer do so (for now, at least), the Emden family has yet to take legal action. It appears that the courts are the only place where the Houston museum will be made to relinquish their claim since the museum’s leadership seems to be unmoved by any sense of moral obligation. Their actions also appear to violate the code of Ethics, Standards, and Professional Practices of the American Alliance of Museums, which clearly states that a “museum’s responsibility to practice ethical stewardship is paramount” when it comes to looted art of any kind, particularly that which was stolen by the Nazis.
Even after seventy-five years, how often and how emphatically must people be reminded? How difficult can it be to do the right thing and quit it with the technicalities? Being stubborn and insufferably tone-deaf only adds insult to a very old injury which many still feel the effects of today. Being forced to do the right thing after initially resisting does not make you seem principled or restrained. It comes across as cold, inconsiderate, and greedy. By denying the Emden family’s claim, even after the questionable circumstances of the work’s sale were revealed, the museum is essentially stealing the painting a second time. And if the restitution went underway, would it really be such a great loss? The Houston Museum of Fine Arts already has an impressive collection, with works from Van Gogh and Cassatt all the way to O’Keeffe and de Kooning. But Bellotto’s Marketplace at Pirna is not exactly as recognizable as the works by these other artists. The case of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, as shown in the 2015 film Woman in Gold, was a very different matter. Klimt was a prolific artist in turn-of-the-century Vienna, with the portrait serving as one of his most recognizable works when it was hanging in the Belvedere Gallery. But Marketplace at Pirna is not a portrait by Klimt. Before the Emden family made their claim, it was just an inoffensive painting of a town in Saxony by an artist many outside of art circles probably hadn’t even heard of. Will the people of Houston line up around the block to be able to see Bellotto’s canvas, as the Viennese had done before Klimt’s paintings left the country? Will art critics call on the museum to buy the painting from the Emden family, as the Austrian people had done, so that Houston will not be deprived of its pride? I think we all know the answers to these questions. Therefore, what harm could possibly be done, other than that which the museum has already done to its own reputation? What is so difficult?