The Reich Stuff

Brent Benjamin and the St. Louis Art Museum are examining whether 102 paintings in the collection have any ties to Nazi looting. But they won't identify the paintings for fear of tainting the works as "suspect." Their caution only raises suspicion.

The Art Institute and the Met have posted complete lists of works with gaps in their World War II/Holocaust provenances, no matter how benign those missing links might be, in order to gain more information. The Matisse "Odalisque" for example, was not recognized as Nazi plunder until it was spotted, with the caption "whereabouts unknown," in Hector Feliciano's The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art. The media controversy, at least to the Art Institute and the Met, is worth the knowledge that might be gathered.

SLAM has hired a former curator living in Germany, Laurie Stein, to investigate the works in its collection with gaps in provenance from the years 1933-45. No listing is planned for the SLAM's Web site, however, even though Stein is looking into the World War II/Holocaust histories of 102 paintings.

Benjamin is not alonein his cautious approach. To date, only four museums have listed artwork of uncertain provenance on their Web sites, and only the Art Institute and the Met have made full disclosure. Museums in California -- including the Getty Museum, which cannot complain about lack of resources -- have yet to provide lists from their substantial holdings.

"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem. Which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously." — St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin
Jennifer Silverberg
"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem. Which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously." — St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin

Boston's MFA chose to list only seven paintings on its Web site that raised "concern" with curators, although more than 200 paintings in the collection are of uncertain provenance. A spokesperson for the MFA, Dawn Griffin, told the Boston Herald, "We are not giving out a list of 200 works. We do not want them sensationalized in the press. We don't want to blacklist a list of 200 works we don't have active concerns about."

Benjamin, who was a curator at MFA before becoming SLAM's director, accepts the view of his former employer. "It would be misleading to post every painting in the collection with a gap in its history," writes Benjamin by e-mail in response to inquiries from the RFT, "when in fact most have and will likely continue to have gaps without being in any way suspicious."

Stein agrees with Benjamin that listing the works on the Web would be of little value. "I think it is important for museums to undertake this work responsibly and with appropriate caution, as they are now doing," Stein writes by e-mail from Berlin. "We should always remember that much of the information available now was not available even 10 years ago, and that many situations are more complicated than one can ever imagine, with twists, turns and inconsistencies of history. It takes a trained scholar to make sense of all this, and therefore posting incomplete research in progress is of limited value."

The RFT correspondence with Stein, however, raises questions as to what is "appropriate caution." The RFT was not allowed to communicate with Stein directly -- only through SLAM's offices. Stein explains the purpose for this indirect communication by e-mail: "I have been engaged by the St. Louis Art Museum and by three other museums to conduct provenance research. That work is, by nature, interrelated and ongoing. It would not be appropriate for me to discuss research in progress. However, I can say that my research for the St. Louis Art Museum has only substantiated the accuracy of existing, well-published and documented provenance information for all works examined to date."

At least, that approximates what she wrote. Not only did questions and answers between the RFT and Stein pass through the art museum, but, says SLAM public-relations coordinator Kay Porter, she and Benjamin would look over Stein's responses and perhaps "enhance" them before sending them along.

Any mention of "Nazi plunder" generates alarm. When the MFA posted its select list, there was this clarification: "It must be noted that the inclusion of a work on this list does not in any way demonstrate that it was looted during the Holocaust/World War II era." Yet the next day, the Boston Globe reported that being on the list "may implicate them in the widespread looting of art during the Nazi era." When Met director Philippe de Montebello reported to the presidential commission on Holocaust assets on April 12, he stated, "I would like to emphasize here, and do so emphatically, that this list is not a list of 'suspect' pictures. To so portray them would do a serious injustice to their donors, to the museum-going public, and to truth itself." De Montebello's emphasis was lost on the Boston Herald. The very next day its headline read, "Two Museums Unveil Long List of Suspect Works."

There is also the outrage of the World Jewish Congress' Steinberg with which to contend. He criticizes the museums for foot-dragging and proposes: "If no individual claimant comes forward, then the work should go to Jewish successor bodies or for the benefit of Holocaust survivors." Steinberg charged that a Rubens in the Met's collection was one such work, a claim that drew intense media attention but later proved groundless. Steinberg has shown no hint of contrition, recommending that a museum be created for unclaimed art stolen from Jews, to be named the Museum of Rescued Art and Literature, or MORAL.

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