Director's Testimony

Statement by Philippe De Montebello, director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at a hearing of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust assets in the United States, Wednesday, April 12, 2000, The Association of the Bar of the City of New York:

Mr. Chairman, I am grateful to the Presidential Commission for the invitation to testify this morning. I appreciate this opportunity to update you, and through you, the public, on the efforts that the Metropolitan Museum has undertaken to re-examine its collections in order to ascertain whether any of its works were unlawfully confiscated by the Nazis and never restituted.

To give a sense of the magnitude of the effort, I hope you will remember that the Metropolitan's collections number more than two million works, works of art held in trust for the benefit and education of a broad public, which now numbers some 5.5 million visitors a year.

As a central part of its mission, the Met has long kept that public informed about all aspects of its collections through illustrated publications presenting both essential art-historical analysis as well as provenance and bibliographical information. And just a few months ago, we launched a new website that enables us to post on the Internet the provenance of works in the collection.

I think it is worth recalling, at this point, that there are at the Met, as in just about every other museum in the world, a great many works of art whose complete ownership history is not fully known, not just for the Nazi era, but for other frames of time as well. Many records are vexingly fragmentary and, as is well known, dealers and auction houses have traditionally been disinclined to specify the origins of their stock, and this long before the Nazi period—a period for which, additionally, even less information has survived.

Today, I have been asked to update the commission on the research into the Nazi era that the Metropolitan has conducted, pursuant to guidelines adopted in June 1998 by the Association of Art Museum Directors, acting on the recommendations of an AAMD Committee which I chaired. In doing so, let me reiterate what I said at the State Department Conference last year, namely that the Metropolitan remains committed to this research and to the underlying principle that informs it: namely, that any legitimate claim of an owner stripped of property by the Nazis must be recognized and redressed.

As it turns out, we have not received any claim from a victim of Nazi spoliation, nor been asked to look for a missing work by a victim or an heir. It is, after all, easier to link a claimant to a specific work of art than to postulate that a work of art may somewhere have a claimant. On the other hand, we realize how difficult this can be, especially one or two generations removed, and so we are conscious of our own obligation in this regard and take it very seriously.

So we ask ourselves: what can we do to advance our research, to speed up the process, to give this quest—ultimately a quest for truth and justice—the best chance of yielding results? The answer, we feel, is to open up the inquiry yet further. And to this end we are releasing today a list of all the European paintings in the Met's collections for which full information about ownership during the Nazi era is still incomplete after eighteen months of renewed research. The list has now been posted on our website.

I would like to emphasize here, and to do so emphatically, that this list is not a list of "suspect" pictures. To so portray them would be to do a serious injustice to their donors, to the museum-going public, and to truth itself. Rather, the inclusion of a painting on this list indicates only that more information is required to complete our knowledge of its ownership during the Nazi era. Our list is an invitation for information that might help fill the elusive gaps during the Nazi era. Moreover, the list, which numbers 393 paintings, represents what remains in question after review of all of the 2,700 European paintings in the collections. For all of the remainder, we have already been able to fill relevant provenance gaps or exclude the possibility of malfeasance. This pattern, mirrored in other museums, namely the gradual elimination of painting with gaps in Nazi-era provenance, tells us not to raise expectations that many pictures will yet be found suspect. But, as I've said on previous occasions, even if only one work were demonstrably suspect, that is one too many.

May I also remind the members of the commission and those present that already more than 2,200 of the 2,700 European paintings in the Metropolitan's collections are posted on our website, with illustrations, and the rest will ultimately be posted; that most provenance information is available in our publications, and that as early as practicable we will post the additional provenance on the website as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the belief that we have been invited here to testify because the commission wants to hear all that may help resolve this painfully lingering chapter in the saga of the worst crime against humanity in modern history, I would like, at this point, to speak to another aspect of the issue, namely the nature of the recent discourse itself. If you will hear me out, I believe that you will see that this is a rather important point, for the degree to which this discourse has been inflected by misrepresentation and exaggeration is most disturbing—and sets a tone that is totally at odds with the search for truth that we are all pursuing.

So, let me try and dispel some misconceptions that continue to permeate the discourse:

First: One cannot equate the works of art seized by the Nazis and later deposited by the Allies with the governments of, among others, Austria, France, or the Netherlands, and the handful of once-looted works that have turned up, or may yet turn up, in American museums. American museums did not participate in the plunder of Jewish collections in Europe during the Nazi era, nor were works, recovered but unclaimed, deposited with them at the end of the war.

And second: there is no similarity between works of art in American museums and the hidden assets in European banks and insurance companies. American museums openly display their collections and make them available to a wide public; they publish them in print and now also in the electronic media.

Also further unnecessarily polarizing the discourse—where instead we should be working in harmony—is a disturbing tendency to rush to judgment about works of art, and by extension, about museums themselves. Let me briefly give you two recent examples.

The first followed the publication by museums in Great Britain of a list of 350 paintings with gaps in their provenance for the Nazi years, very much like the list we are releasing today. Although the British took pains to explain that inclusion was simply a call for more information—just as we are doing—one newspaper nonetheless described the list as "an unprecedented disclosure…that about 350 artworks in their museums' collections may have been looted from their owners during World War II." I would like to think that we, tomorrow, will not be reading headlines such as that one, or like another that ran in England: "Brits list names of Nazi stolen art." That was both inaccurate and irresponsible. And, may I point out, no claim has resulted to date.

The second example of such a "rush to judgment" dates back to only last month. Because our Portrait of a Man by Peter Paul Rubens had once been handled by a notorious dealer, Karl Haberstock—which fact was ascertained, incidentally, from information we ourselves had published—the Metropolitan was challenged in March to prove that the work was not stolen by the Nazis. One of the resulting press reports began with the statement: "The Nazi plunder of art has touched home right here in America." The fact is, there was nothing the Metropolitan needed to prove. Our own publications indicated that the painting had been owned by a collector in Newark, New Jersey, as early as 1924, nine years before Hitler's rise to power.

Yet just a few days later, a wire service ran the following headline: "New York City Museum has famous painting seized by the Nazis"—in this case, a painting by the seventeenth-century Flemish master David Teniers the Younger. The reporter had garnered from one of our own catalogues, published on the Getty Provenance Index website, that the painting had been "seized by the German government during World War II." Yes, it had been looted, but as, once again, we had determined and published several years earlier, the picture had also been restituted to its owners, who brought it to the United States and subsequently gave it to the Metropolitan. The picture's title is clear and unambiguous.

Such false reports as those on the Rubens and the Teniers are simply not helpful. We are pledged to research and to disclosure. We would like to do so in an atmosphere of mutual trust.

Finally I should address briefly the question of numbers, since wildly inflated figures are too often invoked, to wit, that tens or even hundreds of thousands of paintings once plundered by the Nazis are now displayed in our museums. The fact is, there are fewer than twenty thousand European paintings in all in the United States, including the thousands acquired before World War II. To suggest such fanciful—and daunting—numbers is not just cavalier, considering the gravity of the subject, but it must surely be dispiriting to the millions of people who visit museums. And, may I add, it cruelly raises false expectations among potential claimants and Holocaust survivors. I do not think it unreasonable for us to hope for more plausibility in the future discourse. To provide some perspective, let me simply point out that using six of the largest repositories of European paintings in the United States—the Met, the National Gallery, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—we find that together they own just over ten thousand European paintings, a total that, of course, includes the thousands acquired before World War II.

Let me once again emphasize how important it is that the new electronic technologies become a gathering point for any and all information that could facilitate research on provenance; for example, we hope you will support the idea that the federal government provide funding to create an index, or concordance, of the voluminous Holocaust-era records on deposit at the National Archives. Conceivably, it would be one of the best research tools available to scholars seeking clues to wartime looting. Highly desirable as well would be a comprehensive central database highlighting information about outstanding claims for missing works of art, surely the most effective way to link claimants to individual works that they suspect were looted and not returned.

As you contemplate the Commission's recommendations to the President, may I submit that you consider the option of supporting federal funding for such a resource, as well as the notion of federal funding to help research efforts, particularly among claimants and at small museums whose budgetary constraints might currently inhibit such undertakings. And we certainly endorse the swift appropriation of the $5 million that Congress has already authorized for Holocaust-era research.

I should also say that I am pleased that the Art Loss Register has recently offered to make its own database available as a repository for such information. The Metropolitan endorses this approach in principle just as it would welcome other groups, such as the Art Museum Image Consortium (AMICO), or the Art Museum Network of the AAMD, to create sites where relevant information could be posted and be linked to participating museum websites.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me reiterate, in closing, our profound conviction that the unlawful and immoral spoliation of art during the Nazi period remains a bitter part of the horrific memory of this tragic time, and let me renew the Metropolitan Museum's pledge that every effort will be made to try to locate still-missing works of art. To this end, we sincerely hope that the list of paintings we have just released, paintings about which we seek more information, will prove a useful resource in arriving at the truth and ensuring justice.

Thank you.

The Museum has made a special effort to investigate the World War II–era provenance of European paintings in our collection.

See The Collection Online for images and provenance information for relevant works of art.

Thomas J. Watson Library

Thomas J. Watson Library is the central research library of The Metropolitan Museum of Art—one of the world's most comprehensive collections of books, periodicals, auction catalogs, and online resources relating to the history of art. Open to all visitors college age and older. Search the collections.