Holocaust-era Looted Art: Sources, Resources, and Documentary Evidence
National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland
Friday, December 4th, 1998 Auditorium 3:30-5:00 PM
Monica Dugot, Deputy Director, Holocaust Claims Processing Office
Thank you very much for the opportunity to participate on this panel and speak to you about an important aspect of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office's work—the documentation that has been entrusted to us and that we have the privilege of seeing.
Today, the HCPO assists claimants with a wide range of claims: the bulk are claims against Swiss bank and European insurance companies, but there is an ever-increasing number of claimants filing claims for lost, looted or stolen art, as well as for assets deposited with European financial institutions, whether they be French, German, Austrian, British or Italian.
Thus far, the HCPO has received more than 60 art claims and more than 250 telephone inquiries pertaining to looted art, from 8 countries and 17 states. It would appear that wherever people fled to in the late 1930s and 1940s, we now have claimants, be that as close as Canada or as distant as Australia and Israel. Our claimants range from individuals trying to track down the 2 paintings that hung in the family dining room in an apartment in Vienna in 1940 to major collectors with detailed inventory lists trying to locate and recover collections exceeding 6000 works, of which a part were on loan to galleries and museums or were hanging in their homes or were held by banks as security or collateral at the outbreak of WWII.
The majority of our claimants have been trying to track down their art works or collections for many years, some for over 50 years, at an enormous financial and emotional cost, devoting their lives to getting these works back. Other claimants have only fairly recently begun to track down their families' losses, triggered by a visit to a museum. One claimant recognized an 18nth Century day bed whilst on a visit to a museum in 1995 as a piece where she took her naps as a little child. Having been devastated by the war, the family members who survived, decided to take a step back, let justice run its course, and truly believed that in due time their objects would be returned.
To date, despite huge efforts expended and significant resources devoted to this search, the majority of claimants have not been terribly successful. This is particularly true of those claimants who were not fortunate enough to own what would be considered very significant or important works. These claims are more difficult, the paintings harder to track down. Having said that, however, I must stress that these claims are by no means less important and deserve attention.
Art claims range from the partially through the very well documented. I am amazed at the staggering amount of documentation claimants have amassed and submitted with their claims, documentation which ranges from the general through the very specific, of course in a variety of different languages. Unlike certain Swiss bank and European insurance claims that the HCPO takes on, some of which are purely anecdotal, it is more difficult to do so on the art front. We feel a need to manage expectations and not raise false hopes particularly where we feel that we will not be able to find what claimants are looking for. On the other hand, there needs to be a place where a claimant can go to file their claim and tell the story of a painting or paintings that belonged to their grandmother regardless of whether they know the exact size of the work or the specific title of the painting or the exact year it was created. There is a need for these stories to be recorded.
There are claimants who contact us who have practically no supporting documentation and who only have vivid memories of the Van Gogh or Rembrandt hanging in the family dining room. Given the very special group of individuals we serve, we have devoted a lot of time and effort towards listening very carefully to our claimants. Frequently the facts and details that may provide us with leads in tracking the art object are not apparent in the information supplied on the claim form the HCPO uses, despite the work and experience that went into the creation of this claim form. The claimant will frequently leave out very pertinent information and only after several follow-up conversations will proffer the information, surprised that it is of any importance and has any relevance whatsoever to their case. Information such as the name of the shipping company used to transfer and relocate the objects or the name of an individual to whom an object was entrusted in 1941 or the name of an uncle who offered up a certain painting to a Nazi agent in 1942 in order to get safe haven to Switzerland. Frequently these details are only revealed in countless retellings of very traumatic events.
As I mentioned earlier, a sizable number of claimants have submitted claims with a great deal of documentation. We have seen a wide variety of documents to date.
First and foremost, family inventory lists. One claimant proffered a handwritten ledger book listing over 5000 art purchases that include pictures, etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, watercolors and drawings as well as a homemade catalogue of 347 oils his father-in-law purchased, with detailed descriptions. Another claimant submitted copies of mostly handwritten lists with full details of every object—colors, markings, size, technique. Many claimants have detailed and itemized records listing their household assets including some or all of their collections, amidst lists of silver, fur coats, furniture and menorahs.
In almost a quarter of the cases claimants have provided exhibition and auction catalogues from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s—some in their entirety, others the relevant parts. One claimant offered up a catalogue listing 236 objects that were auctioned off in Berlin in 1941. Another claimant submitted a catalogue listing over 300 art objects that were auctioned off in Lucerne in 1934.
Similarly we have seen insurance documents such as property insurance policies, art schedules or inventory lists for insurance purposes. Some of our claimants' art collections were so large that the coverage was spread across a number of carriers. Claimants come in clutching their premium stubs and correspondence that include pre-war and wartime confirmation letters from insurance companies referencing policies. In the particularly fortunate cases, insurance policies dating from 1938-39 represent exactly what was in the family collection at the time of the looting. Most frequently, I've come across insurance policies dated 1928-30; unfortunately, what was insured at that point might not be what was ultimately in the collection at the onset of the War. The insured could have and probably did actively buy and sell in the ten years leading up to WWII for a variety of different reasons. Company archives from small insurance companies such as L'Abeille, Le Soleil, La Confiance and Le Phénix in France or Leipziger Versicherung in Germany would be helpful in completing the picture.
Similarly, documents from dealers and auction houses would help shed light on the frequent sales in this particularly active period. More's the pity that institutions such as the Dorotheum in Vienna won't willingly share their files and archives—after all, they could help determine the middlemen whose names will not show up in the provenance of the work in question. Extensive research needs to be done in acquisition documents where the names of these middlemen and other such vital leads would be reflected.
But of course, in cases where the family owned approximately 4 or 5 works of art, it was not common practice to insure these objects. As we all know, the paintings carried an enormous social value, not necessarily a financial one. In such cases, shipping records sometimes take the place of nonexistent insurance records.
Several claimants have sent in copies of shipping records of paintings going from Austria to France, from Holland to France, from France to Switzerland and so on, together with receipts, bills of laden, invoices, inventory lists, details about the firms that arranged for the inventory, packing, crating, shipping and insuring of the contents of claimants' homes.
Also warehouse receipts and records, detailed warehouse inventories and the forwarding company records and correspondence have been submitted. We have several claimants whose entire collections were placed in warehouses in Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg and Paris, collections which were subsequently seized by the Nazis as degenerate art under the authority of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). Several claimants have detailed records, for instance, the warehouse receipt showing the exact day when the confiscation took place, bearing proof of the seizure and stamped by the German authorities.
In other words, claimants can frequently provide plenty of documentation from the period. But they have also been trying to track down their art objects for over 50 years. As a result, we are also seeing documentation of their efforts to date. Most frequently, their search was initiated by filing claims against the governments of countries formerly occupied by Nazi Germany, claims that were neglected and just left pending. Let me give some examples. A claimant, originally from Budapest, submitted numerous claims to the Hungarian Compensation Board in June of 1946. Compensation for all his tangible assets (including art objects) was flatly denied without explanation. Similarly, another claimant, originally from Vienna, submitted a claim in November 1946 with the American occupation Military Government of Austria. The detailed inventory list and proof of ownership did not help her. Her claim was denied. Another claimant submitted a copy of a correspondence file from a museum in Poland. The museum had been very helpful vis-à-vis this claimant and had supplied the claimant with the list of paintings that had been taken from her grandfather's flat in 1940 in Poznan. The museum also provided the claimant with copies of their WWII files containing notebooks in which the Nazis listed the objects they had appropriated.
Most frequently, the claimant would then retain an attorney and/or experts to pursue the claim, at great financial cost to the claimant. In the majority of cases, this, too, was of no use but it did generate lots of paper. The HCPO has large files containing correspondence from the claimant to their attorney, from the attorney to the government in question, summaries of court actions, copies of foreign court cases (i.e., Swiss Supreme Court), transcripts of restitution hearings, restitution records, and so on. In the 1960s, West German restitution authorities "honored" some art claims, providing modest compensation for the Nazi seizure of household goods and art collections.
One claimant, ninety-four years old, from Vienna, initially contacted our office referencing an unresolved claim against a Swiss financial institution. Having successfully settled her claim with this institution, she felt comfortable enough to speak to us about a claim she had pertaining to a painting she and her husband had been trying to recover for over 50 years. The painting is a Hans Canon that was taken from her home in Vienna in 1940. It had been catalogued and exhibited. She handed me an enormous file containing letters to various American and Austrian attorneys, letters to the US military, letters to the Finanzlandesdirektion für Wien, letters to the Bundesdenkmalamt and so on referencing this one painting. Her husband died a few years ago, but she is still pursuing the recovery of the painting, now without him. She realizes the painting has no great monetary value. Nonetheless, she has expended enormous emotional and financial investment in attempting to get the painting back. She certainly doesn't intend to give up now.
A surprising number of claimants have photographs of the actual paintings in question. Several claimants who do not have photographs of the object have sent us photographs of the rooms in which the paintings were hanging. In the same vein, one claimant sent us a photograph of herself—can you guess that the painting she is looking for is her portrait? Another claimant submitted a 1939 calendar—each month shows a different painting from the family collection. As a starting point, another claimant, the owner's grandson, went through family photo albums in an attempt to get some sense of his grandfather's art collection. In looking through these photographs, the claimant found pictures of six paintings that were in the background of photographs taken of family members. He copied these pictures and had the relevant part enlarged. It was only by looking through these photo albums that the claimant became aware of even a portion of the art collection which his grandparents had in their home. Yet another claimant came up with his own pictorial renderings of several of the missing paintings.
Another claimant has submitted copies of her own portraits of gypsies she painted at the direction of Josef Mengele whilst she was interned in Auschwitz in 1944. She has, over the years, requested the return of these portraits, her own work, to no avail.
Of course, we also see more "traditional" types of documentation: dealers' lists, handwritten auctioneer buyers' lists and stock books, published books, art periodicals, gallery bulletins and newspaper clippings from the 1930s referencing the object and diary entries. Some are more personal: one claimant sent in a copy of her grandmother's diary in which her grandmother describes receiving a Kokoschka painting as a gift from Oskar Kokoschka himself.
Other documentation that we have seen includes bank deposit records, certified bank inventories, Nazi inventories (inventories made when Nazis would go to the bank to "loot" the collection), bank payment records for a safety vault or safe deposit box, even bank collateral agreements. The Nazis rise to power made it more difficult for certain individuals to gain their livelihood, forcing them to take out loans and put up the paintings as collateral. The loan would be called in without any advance warning. The owner could not repay the loan for obvious reasons, works were considered "degenerate" and therefore worthless and the paintings were thus "acquired" by the banks. In other instances, the paintings were confiscated for "undefined debts" or "unspecified debts", for instance monies owed as a result of non-payment of fees connected to maintaining a safe deposit box in a bank.
There was a significant "forced" loss of art between 1935 and 1938 as a result of the economic strangulation of a particular group; it was not just the physical looting by the Gestapo or the ERR seizing paintings off the walls which was done formally and informally, announced and unannounced. But there is proof of these forced sales, all of them very problematic cases. Is a sale valid when in 1937 the owner has to put paintings up for sale because he is denied the right to earn a living and needs to cover next month's rent? Is a sale valid when an individual is forced to sell his paintings at no more than 20% of their 1927 appraised value in order to allow his family to emigrate to safety?
We see what some would consider mundane letters: a description, in a letter to a cousin, announcing the revocation of one's license to practice law or the frustration in not being able to own property. Through these letters, private notes and diaries, that were surely not intended for public consumption, we witness the gradual loss of dignity, the loss of ability to earns one's livelihood and take care of a family, the desperation, the frustration, the gradual loss of worth as a whole class of people were expelled from trades and businesses.
Answers and clues as to where the work of art might be or what might have been in the collection or leads that need to be investigated frequently lies in the claimant's documentation.
But what the claimant brings in, although invaluable, only represents a part of the story.
We try to find the documentation the claimant does not have, or use the documents the claimant has provided to dig deeper. Where the claimant provides us with receipts and an inventory dated 1939 from the Spediteur Basch in Prague, we attempt to track down that warehouse or its successor. Similarly, where the claimant has records from a shipping company, for instance, Schenker International Transport, we investigate further given the declassification of the Schenker Papers. Where the claimant mentions a more obscure and less obvious shipping company, we try to track down the company if it still exists. If it does not, we search for the successor company.
Through customs records, some of which are available, we can verify the entry of works of art into the U.S. Unfortunately, many of the customs records between the years 1946-54 were destroyed or we have not been able to get a hold of them. These would be extremely useful.
We start looking for the subject in auction catalogues, catalogue raisonnés, museum inventories, gallery files, various databases, documentation and lists in archives and libraries. Documents we examine include Consolidated Interrogation Reports from the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) Art Looting Investigation Unit (U.S. Army), Roberts Commission records [RG 239], the Fischer Archive, seizure lists, card catalogues and Allied claims that were filed between 1945 and '51 by individuals from 19 countries, some left pending to the best of our knowledge.
We do find ourselves in the peculiar but necessary position of building a case via Nazi documentation. In certain cases, that is all we have. The Nazis obsession with procedure and record keeping has proved very useful and they did leave a terrific paper trail. Asset declaration forms, such as the Vermögensverzeichnis (list of assets), on file at the Austrian Federal Archives, included lists of art works—clearly identified for future seizure—essentially shopping lists for interested Nazis.
Given the HCPO's policy not to turn anyone away and to try and assist all those who contact us, if a claimant is able to provide us with something to go on, a lead, we will endeavor to give it our best shot. This is especially true today with all the resources now available to us.
In attempting to resolve these types of claims, there is no speedy remedy. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. For the time being, none of this will be done by simply consulting one source. One source will rarely be sufficient to buttress a claim. At this point, one-stop shopping is antithetical to the notion of diligence. It is anti-claimant. One will have to consult various archives, various experts, and various other resources some of which I've tried to describe. Whilst I realize this is laborious, and cumbersome, I do believe it is also necessary because of the complexity of the issue. There is a need to be objective and wide-ranging.
Ultimately, I hope that the accumulation of documentation and greater access to documentation leads to restitution or a settlement that is satisfactory to the claimant. Having listened carefully to claimants over the last year and a half, and having carefully read the documentation they've entrusted to us, it is clear that claimants do want the object back regardless of its monetary value or the monies he/she are offered for it. Paintings carry much greater symbolic value than many other assets. Frequently, the painting is charged with emotion and represents the last remaining link to a world that is now lost, to a generation of people who perished so brutally.