Selective Context: the Passive Approach to Researching Provenance, Part 4: A New Regime at the Leopold and A New Mindset in America

Diethard Leopold, who took over his father’s role as chair of the museum foundation, is taking the task of provenance research seriously; “according to Diethard, works found to have been looted before and during World War II will be restituted, or suitable compensation will be paid to the rightful heirs to allow the museum to keep them” (Cohan). The elder Leopold died before the “Wally” case went to trial; Diethard agreed to a $19 million settlement that allowed the Museum to keep “Wally.” It is displayed prominently with signage describing the controversial history (Cohan). Diethard had arranged for $35 million in settlements as of late 2012.

While this sounds like good news, art historian Sophie Lillie is skeptical. She agrees that the settlements were the right thing to do, but believes the Leopold’s motives may not be pure. In an interview, “Lillie concedes that Diethard Leopold is a ‘good communicator’ and has removed the museum from ‘the stalemate situation that they were in for many, many, many years,’ she says that restitution is about more than just financial settlements” (Cohan). She may be right. Diethard says that, while he feels the heirs have a moral claim to the works seized from their ancestors, they have no judicial right to the pieces. He believes both have equal moral claim to the pieces, which means he believes his father collected from victims of the War honestly.

Ultimately, the resolution of the “Wally” case is unsatisfactory. The settlement leaves us with no clear answer as to who was the rightful owner of the piece, nor was Bondi’s story, which implicates Leopold in knowingly obtaining art from Jewish refugees, validated.

It seems that general consensus favors Bondi in this case. The United States judicial system has concluded that “Wally” maintains it’s stolen status, despite multiple subsequent owners; that the foreign state in question is not immune; validates the National Stolen Property Act as a tool to prevent trafficking stolen art; that no treaty or doctrine prevents adjudication; and that heirs do maintain standing, among other factors (Lufkin). The sheer case law necessary to determine how to proceed with the trial reflects the confusing and often controversial nature of inter-national law, repatriation, and conflicting legislation. Unless curators in the United States restrict their acquisitions and loans to countries willing to hold their museums, and themselves, accountable for the provenance of their property, and curators begin to take a proactive stance in reviewing the origins and purchase history of every piece they show, the process of restitution from World War II alone will possibly continue in perpetuity. Dr. Ariel Muzikant, president of the Israelite Cultural Organization of Vienna, agrees. According to Muzikant, as of 2008, only 8%-14% of the art looted, confiscated, or otherwise stolen during the war has been restored to their owners or legitimately purchased via settlement (Dachler). There is virtually no information about the response that other nations took to having shown the Leopold Collection of Schiele works, or about what adjustments may have been made, legally, to correct the loophole in Austrian restitution law.

Ultimately, the only course of protection for museum governance, curators, and owners is increased vigilance about the chain of ownership. The sense of urgency in that regard lessens the further away society gets from 1944, but the likelihood of illegitimate art entering the market or being put on exhibit will only increase as complacency increases. An entire generation of people in possession of stolen World War II art is slowly, but surely, passing their pieces along by sale, loan, or bequest. If curators, and private collectors, don’t use this opportunity to truly examine the provenance of everything entering and exiting their collection, they may ultimately lose the opportunity to claim definite legitimacy of their collections altogether.


Sources:

Barker, Godfrey. “The Unfinished Art Business of World War Two.” BBC News. BBC, 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24812078&gt;.

Cohan, William D. “Charting a New Course.” ARTNews. ARTNews, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.artnews.com/2012/09/06/charting-a-new-course/&gt;.

Dachler, Marlies. “Burden of Proof.” The Vienna Review. Vienna Review, Apr. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.viennareview.net/news/front-page/burden-of-proof&gt;.

Dobrzynski, Judith. “THE ZEALOUS COLLECTOR.” New York Times. New York Times, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/24/arts/zealous-collector-special-report-singular-passion-for-amassing-art-one-way.html&gt;.

“History of the Smithsonian.” Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Institution, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://newsdesk.si.edu/about/history&gt;.

Lufkin, Martha B. G. “Whistling Past the Graveyard Isn’t Enough.” Art Antiquity and Law 7.3 (2002): 207-30. Print.

“Press Dossier.” Leopold Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/media/file/41_Allgemeine_Pressemappe_Leopold_ENG.12.pdf&gt;.

Prodhan, Georgina. “Vienna Museum Director Quits in Nazi Looted Art Row.” Reuters. Reuters, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/30/us-austria-museum-idUSBRE99T12720131030&gt;.

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