For sometime now there has been an ever-growing list of cases of people lodging claims for the return of artworks and artifacts they claim were stolen or sold under duress during World War II. These snippets from a tragic historical drama of immense proportions often feature complex narratives and the outcomes are rarely clear-cut. A number of countries have set up special commissions or committees to deal with the decisions on who is entitled to disputed works.
Britain's Spoliation Advisory Committee has recently delivered its verdict in a very murky case involving eight drawings that are now in London's Courtauld Institute. In the early 1930s they had come into the possession of Professor Carl Glaser whose heirs last year claimed they had been sold under duress and should be returned to them. Glaser auctioned most of his substantial art collection in May 1933 after the Nazis came to power and removed him from his position as Director of the Staatliche Kunstbibliothek (State Art Library) in Berlin. Glaser was born to Jewish parents but had converted to Catholicism in 1914. The drawings were bought by Count Antoine Seilern and in 1978 they were part of a bequest that ended with the Courtauld in London.
The Courtauld argued that the Berlin auction was not a forced sale as a letter survives from Glaser to the painter Edvard Munch in which he describes having 'freed myself of all my possessions, so that I might start over again completely new' after the recent death of his first wife. The prices for the works were in line with market expectations at the time and Seilern was known to be an anti-Nazi who never attempted to hide the provenance of the drawings.
In its argument, the Courtauld concedes that Nazi persecution was a factor in the 1933 but argues that the decisive factor was Glaser's own "free choice". In its judgement the Spoliation Advisory Committee decided that 'the claimants’ moral claim is insufficiently strong to warrant a recommendation that the drawings should be transferred to them.'
Glaser's heirs have now reportedly appealed to the British culture secretary to have the Committee's decision disregarded.
The Art Newspaper also has a story on this case here.
Like so many before it, this case proves how difficult it is to deal with disputed transactions that took place sixty or seventy years ago. Nevertheless, the difficulty of reaching a correct decision should not deter people from attempting to find a just outcome. Recent high profile cases such as that surrounding Maria Altmann's successful claim to famous gold portraits by Gustav Klimt have thrown the spotlight on this shady corner of twentieth century history and it will be a while yet before all of the proverbial skeletons are out of the closets.
© Brian Long 2009