Europe’s plundered art treasures
Nearly 60 years after the end of WWII, lost and looted art remains a live issue – and is a major strand in the Institute Francais’s inaugural View art history festival
George Clooney’s last directorial offering is Monuments Men, a heist movie meets historical drama based on the work of the art experts dispatched to Europe to save thousands of works of art from the Nazis’ clutches during World War Two. (The usually sure-footed Mr Clooney has received mixed reviews for the film, which opens in London on 14 February.)
Real-life British heroes of the time included Ronald Balfour, a bespectacled art historian from King’s College, Cambridge, and the writer Virginia Nicholson’s mother Anne, who was sent to Germany to help reinstate art treasures – both worked within pan-European teams of courageous experts. Yet despite the best efforts of ‘the Monuments Men’ (and women), numberless treasures remain unaccounted for to this day – with one German museum curator admitting that works of unproven origin in his nation’s museums number in the thousands.
Meanwhile, the discovery last year of 1,500 pieces of art including works by Matisse, Picasso and Chagall in the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt is welcome proof that the trail leading to plundered art, and to restitution, is far from cold. Experts believe that this $1billion haul of lost art, which was followed by a further discovery at the house of Gurlitt’s brother-in-law, is made up paintings stolen from Jewish collectors during WW2 and sold on for a fraction of their true value.
Looted art is a major theme in a brand new festival hosted by the Institute Francais and devoted to art history, which takes place this weekend. The View Festival will host talks from European experts on many aspects of art history, including museum curation and research and the role of art in national identity.
The festival’s opening night debate is entitled The Fate of Europe’s Treasures After WW2 and includes a talk by Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. As the festival’s organiser Marie-Doha Besancenot explains, the debate is more than a mere talking shop. ‘British museums have introduced a policy of trust and transparency when it comes to art of uncertain origin,’ she explains. ‘Institutions like the British Museum invite families to get in touch if they recognise works of art once owned by their parents or grandparents. In one recent case, the museum organised an exhibition to honour a family who had found four of their grandfather’s pieces in the museum’s collection. As a result, the family went on to donate a fifth work.’
‘It’s true that Britain has led the way in implementing the principles laid out by the 1998 Washington Conference on Nazi-Confiscated Art,’ says Anne Webber. ‘Those principles make it the responsibility of museums to publish details of their collections, especially those acquired between 1933 and 1945 – otherwise it’s simply impossible for families to locate their lost paintings. So far the only countries to do so in Europe are Britain and Holland. Even Germany, which you would expect to be at the forefront, has not done so – and that is a very serious problem.’
In previous years, the Institute Francais has run a philosophy festival that became so wildly successful it outgrew its venue and is now taking place in Berlin. But why art history? ‘As a city, London is closely associated with the contemporary art market,’ says Marie-Doha. ‘But the success of Frieze Masters shows that the public are just as interested in history – all that contemporary art didn’t come out of nowhere, after all. Museums, too, are placing the emphasis back on research. Over the last ten years, the V&A, for example, has tripled visitor numbers by focusing on their communication strategy. Now, the museum’s research department is at the forefront of exhibition planning and is deepening the scientific and historical context for visitors.’
For full festival listings and to buy tickets, visit View Festival