DU program wants to unspool the web of stolen Nazi art

Sarah Malcolm stood in the Nuremberg archives in Germany this summer, looking for clues to her partner’s past.

A man behind a tall desk produced a scanned copy of her boyfriend’s great-grandfather’s resident card. It had two addresses. The archive worker told the couple that it looked like the family had left Germany because of the Nazis.

How did he know?

The residence card, the man answered, sported the letters “ISR,” indicating the family was Jewish. It also included a note. If the family left, the Nazis needed to be notified.

“It was a super meaningful day for the both of us,” Malcolm, 35, said. “I was so excited that my boyfriend got to learn more about this part of his family history.”

It’s this longing to reconstruct the circuitous path of people and culture during the Holocaust period that drove Malcolm to a certificate program at the University of Denver unlike any other in the country.

The Nazi-Era Art Provenance Research training program, housed under DU’s Center for Collection Ethics, aims to give aspiring provenance workers, museum curators and art market employees the tools to unspool the vast web of plundered Nazi art pieces that continue to sit in the world’s top museums and auction houses.

Students around the world learn about the atrocities of Adolf Hitler’s regime. The six million Jews murdered. The millions of others also killed in concentration camps throughout Eastern Europe.

But as the Nazis systematically took control of Europe, they also plundered some 600,000 cultural objects. The mass looting has been described as the greatest displacement of art in human history.

It’s a topic that has long fascinated Elizabeth Campell. An associate history professor and director of DU’s Center for Collection Ethics, Campbell’s first book examined the Vichy regime’s actions after the Nazis looted Jewish art collections during World War II. And her latest work compares restitution practices for plundered art in three European nations.

The professor formed the Center for Art Collection Ethics in 2017, but quickly realized there were no certificate programs specifically to school students in Nazi-era provenance research — the study of an object’s history of ownership, from the time of its creation to the present day.

“By and large, we still are in a situation where museums tend to be responding to crises and claims,” Campbell said. “We still are not at the point where this research is being carried out systematically.”

Enter the certificate program.

Twenty students from across the country in June descended on DU’s campus to learn the fundamentals of how to trace these prized works from Jewish hands to museum galleries. The one-week program, led by Campbell, included workshops on provenance writing narratives, instruction on how to use the myriad databases to track family histories and case studies of how museums dealt with real pieces in their collections.

The students came from a variety of backgrounds: Art market employees, museum staff and Ph.D. candidates. Together, they learned tricks to help them solve these century-old riddles.

The Nazis, for instance, would assign the names “Israel” and “Sarah” to those who didn’t have names that sounded Jewish enough. Other clues could be that a valuable artwork sold for far less than its value, indicating the Jewish owner might have been coerced into the deal.

“Some people would call it tedious, but I like how much puzzle-solving there is involved in it,” Malcolm said. “I like going through the archives; I like digging through documents, trying different keyword searches to see what I can discover.”

Beatrice Levine felt compelled to take the program after working for an auction house.

“I really saw the ugly side of this industry,” the University of Kansas master’s student said.

Levine, 29, saw how little research went into questionable pieces before they went up for sale — all for the sake of making money. What little probing did get done came from young employees with little experience, she said. Her exposure to the art market scared her into going back to school for a degree in Holocaust and genocide studies, with a goal of making provenance research a staple of undergraduate curriculum.

“People say to me, ‘Isn’t World War II over?’” Levine said. “It always shocks me. World War II wasn’t so long ago.”

Provenance research has become a hot-button topic in the art world in recent years as museums in the U.S. and Europe reexamine the ways in which they built their collections. For decades, museums cared little about whether objects had clear ownership histories. But a 1970 UNESCO convention designed to combat the illegal trade in cultural items set a new standard for documentation.

A seminal moment for Nazi-era art came in 1998. Representatives of 44 governments convened in Washington, D.C., to endorse a set of principles dedicated to helping the heirs of Jewish collectors reclaim their family’s art looted during World War II. The goal of the “Washington Principles“: “Complete by the end of this century the unfinished business of the middle of the century,” a U.S. official, Stuart Eizenstat, said during closing remarks.

Experts say progress has been made in the 25 years since the non-binding principles came into effect. Several European countries — including Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom — established national commissions to research artworks in public collections and provide avenues to facilitate restitution.

New York last year passed the first law in the United States requiring institutions to label works that were stolen by the Nazis. The American Alliance of Museums created a database of nearly 30,000 objects in U.S. museum collections that changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era.

The Denver Art Museum has more than 100 of such pieces — though this does not mean they were stolen.

But there’s still so much more work to be done, Campbell said. She wants to professionalize the provenance field, and hopes the DU program will help change the tide of this crucial research, creating a broader network of people who want to ensure art is ethically displayed.

“By the end,” she said, “it felt like we were doing really productive, important work.”

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