Oct 10, 2019

Nazi Looted Art and the Fight for Open Data


In 2000 the American newspaper Chicago Tribune examined the struggle to publish long hidden Holocaust-related art looting archives. 

The article, "KEY TO ART NAZIS STOLE MAY BE LOCKED AWAY"written by journalist and history professor Ron Grossman, recounts the struggle to provide open access to:

 a massive cache of World War II records documenting Nazi looting of works by some of the greatest artists in history 
The context of the article is that a United States government commission on Holocaust reparations is preparing to issue its final report, and there is fear that these crucial archives, which had been marked classified and locked away, will remain inaccessible despite the efforts of the Presidential Commission. The Commission is planning to publish a public database, but there are problems. Additional government funding is needed. A deadline looms.

The Chicago Tribune article recounts the history of the Nazi looted art archives and the efforts to finally - in the year 2000 and at the urging of the Presidential Commission - to bring them to light. 

A Tribune examination of records in the National Archives reveals that the U.S. government has possessed documents key to the issue of to what extent Nazi-looted art has found its way into American museums, but failed to organize it and make it public, leaving museums and private collectors unable to check their holdings against a master list of claims. Other documents in the archives indicate that the U.S. government was aware that stolen art was being funneled into the United States after the war but did not take vigorous measures to halt the illicit trade.

Plans for a massive open database are, at the moment the journalist writes his article, under threat. What do these records contain?

The records from which the commission had been building its database are contained in 35 rolls of microfilm recording thousands of pages of claims filled out in half a dozen languages immediately after World War II by Holocaust survivors and museums whose collections were pillaged during the Nazi occupation of Europe. Over 300,000 in total, they record Nazi looting of furniture, household effects, rare books, Jewish religious materials, musical instruments, antiques, stamp and butterfly collections, as well as fine art.

Those documents also witness the pain of Holocaust survivors looking for property stolen by the Nazis, who used the war as an opportunity to loot fine art from their victims on a scale unprecedented in history.  

What obstacles is the Commission encountering in 2000 that threaten the plans for open access?

Now a lack of funding and bureaucratic mishaps could again consign those documents to an obscure shelf in the National Archives here, instead of being organized into a computer-searchable archive.

The Chicago Tribune article reviews previous - failed - efforts to publish the looted art documents, going back to the Second World War.

During World War II, aware of Nazi looting, the U.S. government imposed strict rules for the importation of artworks into this country. The OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, also compiled a list of European art dealers who were aiding the Nazis in funneling looted paintings and sculptures into the international art market. Both the FBI and postal inspectors monitored communications between European dealers with Nazi connections and galleries in Latin America and the U.S. American officials were concerned that looted art was being smuggled along a clandestine route that led from Nazi-occupied Europe through neutral Switzerland to the Americas...

By 1946, however, both the government and the art world were anxious to be free of import regulations. New York had become the postwar center of the art market, and American institutions were anxious to fill gaps in their collections with works from Europe. Francis Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote to the governmental agency charged with monitoring looted art, saying the continuation of customs controls, "will lead to frustration and enmity on the part of the trade which will result in disadvantage to all the institutions involved."

Fighting for the release of the looted art documents was Ardelia Hall, one of the few Monuments Men who was a woman. Failing to get them released, Hall managed to have microfilms made before the originals "went into storage". 

"Hall saw that a great sin was being committed," said Masurovsky, "and she thought that the government should have done something about it,"

The archives contain records of the illicit transatlantic art trade in Nazi-looted artorks.

That illicit trade might have been nipped in the bud and looted works returned to their former owners decades earlier had Holocaust survivors' claim forms been available in the immediate postwar years. Indeed, that seems to have been the intention of Ardelia Hall, a crusading State Department official, who collected the mass of documents from which the commission was building its database.


The Chicago Tribune article was published on December 17, 2000.  Many archival documents have been published since then, and several databases have gone online. 

It is thanks to the heroic Ardelia Hall that we can consult online on FOLD3 the Ardelia Hall Collection

But even today, the data is not exactly "open". 

Not everything has been digitized, and even among digitized archives available on Fold3, not everything has been transcribed so that it is searchable.

For more detailed information,  see the original Chicago Tribune article from 2000: "KEY TO ART NAZIS STOLE MAY BE LOCKED AWAY". 

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