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Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Ministry Explains It All: Spoliation in the news

Spoliation is a word you might have heard being use a lot in the museum press of late. The term makes it sound a bit like museums are hiding pieces of off fruit in their stores. But actually spoliation refers very specifically to works of art and objects looted by the Nazis during the Second World War. Simply put, UK museums need to ensure that none of their holdings were taken from their rightful owners between 1935-1945. The principal might be straight forward, but the practice is more complex. So when you hear that the Tate, the Ashmolean and the V&A have been very publicly under review by the spoliation advisory panel, it doesn’t mean that museums don’t take this issue very seriously. The Ministry is here to break it down for you and explain why spoliation is so damn complicated and why registrars are critical to museum work. 

President Eisenhower views looted art in a salt mine
It would be easy to think that in the 70-odd years since the Second World War that any art stolen by the Nazis would have ended up back where it belongs by now. However just a quick glance at the news over the past weeks will tell you Nazi loot is still a hot topic. In Germany, Cornelius Gurlitt was found to be hiding a stash of ‘degenerate’ art over £1 billion which his father had acquired with the intention of selling to raise funds for the Nazi party. Just last week, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was able to identify the owners of a painting by Paul Signac which had been presented to the institution as thanks for a performance for German soldiers. It seems no matter how much work has been done, there is always something more to be discovered.
A seascape by Paul Signac, recently returned by the Vienna Philharmonic.
The way that spoilation works in practice is a bit more confusing. The big name you’ll hear over and over again are the ‘Washington Principles’. In 1998 there was a conference in Washington about Holocaust-era Assets that ended up creating a non-binding set of principles (so best practice guidelines) that 44 countries including the UK signed up to. This includes all the things you’d expect - ensuring you know the provenance of all your objects for the period 1939-1945, making known any art that has an unclear provenance and, if a claim is made, do everything you can to return the object quickly. In the UK, objects with a squiffy history should be listed on a database hosted by the National Museum Director’s Conference (NMDC). If a claim is made, this goes through the Spoliation Advisory Panel, which is exactly whats happening to the Ashmolean and the V&A at the moment. 

Works by artists like Otto Dix have been recovered from Gurlitt's collection
There isn’t a museum out there that would purposefully want to get in the way of returning spoliated art. However the practicalities of understanding the legal protocols and how it applies to their day to day work is something that, in practice, all institutions struggle with. Undertaking a collection-wide provenance review is a thought that would bring any museum person to tears. It would be nice to think all our objects have been thoroughly provenanced, but let’s just admit they they haven’t. The specialist time it would take can seem impossible when all museums feel short-staffed even for core functions. Things are more straightforward with pieces of art from famous artists which are straightforward to check through databases before acquisition. But the V&A and the Ashmolean are dealing with claims over porcelain figures that maybe didn’t send up so many red flags. 

In museum acquisition paperwork, there is always a section in which the donor or vendor needs to specify where that object was held between 1939 and 1945. If this question cannot be answered clearly, and with proof, that object is suspect. A museum might decide even not to acquire it, and if they did they would need to list it as a risk. But what is so often the case is the donor, and the museum, despite their due diligence, despite their best intentions, simply miss something. It’s only really when a claim comes forward that a certain owner, a certain auction house become suspect. Despite efforts to make clear guidelines and widely accessible databases, the only line of defense against the acquisition of spoliated goods is a registrar with a hawkeye for administrative blips. 

American soldiers with art recovered after the war. 
We’ve already demonstrated how registrars are some of the most important people in a museum. Not only do they make sure everything gets where it needs to be safely, their job is to make sure all acquisitions, loans and disposals are done to the highest of standards. This doesn’t just mean making sure you know all the interesting historical details that help out curators for exhibitions, it means making sure that object was never stolen, isn’t made of some bits of endangered species or is likely to blow up in your face (literally and metaphorically). Provenance actually plays a critical role in a museum’s daily activities, as for example an object without a clear provenance can’t go out on loan. It’s unfortunate then that so many registry positions have been axed from museums during funding cuts. Skilled registrars are what stand in between museums and the spoilation advisory panel. 
This is why your registrar's desk probably looks like this. 
What’s important to take away from these stories is that museums are really doing the best they can to follow best practice and make sure looted art makes it’s way home. The current situation of the V&A and the Ashmolean should in no way reflect on the professionalism of those institutions. You can have the hardest working registrars in the world, but it’s all too easy for something to be missed. At the end of the day, the art world is still struggling to come to grips with the extent to which works of art were looted by the Nazi regime. And as any museum person can tell you, objects can travel to the strangest and most unexpected of places. 

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