Holding looted art equals receiving stolen goods: Safer

Hana Gartner interviews 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer on the issue of Nazi-looted art restitution.  [Janice Arnold photo]

MONTREAL — Veteran newsman Morley Safer lashed out at the “greedy” international art trade for its refusal to co-operate with efforts to restitute Nazi-looted art.

Safer, a senior correspondent with CBS television’s 60 Minutes, was the opening speaker at a two-day conference at Concordia University titled “Plundered Cultures/Stolen Heritage.”

Art dealers and auction houses have “no interest in seeing that justice is done” and know that, with each passing year, claims by the victims of the Nazis or their heirs are harder to prove, he said.

Museums have shown little more sense of responsibility, balking at delving into the backgrounds of their collections and putting up stiff resistance when faced with a claim, he added.

“There are thousands and thousands of [despoiled] works of art and other valuables in private and public collections on every continent,” said Safer, who won an Emmy for his 1997 report on the bitterly fought claim against a private collector.

The case involved the descendants of Dutch banker Freidrich Gutmann who sued American philanthropist Daniel Searle, a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. Searle had bought a Degas painting in 1987, which the Gutmann family tried to prove had been stolen by the Nazis from their grandfather. He and his wife died in concentration camps.

That work was just one of hundreds that the Nazis confiscated from the Gutmanns and that remain missing to this day, Safer said.

The Gutmann case is far from unique, he suggested. “Nobody has any idea how much art came into the U.S. after World War II. There is no record… after the second or third sale, art loses its original identity. Nobody ever bothered with this murky history.”

Safer was critical of the international community for still not coming to a “common understanding” on how to handle restitution claims almost 70 years after World War II.

With art frequently changing hands over borders, this lack of legal co-ordination has further dimmed the prospects of returning art to its rightful owners, he believes.

Safer, who was born in Toronto in 1932 to Austrian Jewish parents, said the Nazis were rapacious. “Beyond the dynasties, even the most modest houses were plundered – of crockery, rugs, furniture. This was a wholesale attempt to not only eradicate a people, but to profit from it.”

Governments have also shown little interest in seeing justice done, he said. Not only Germany – which he acknowledged has the best record of co-operation – and Austria, but “Belgium, Holland, France and even the U.S., for many years, ignored pleas to look into the provenance of works acquired after 1945,” Safer said.

In an interview following his address with former CBC journalist Hana Gartner, Safer said museums must publicly identify for the source and background of their holdings, whether or not there is a claim on them.

“Often that history is more interesting or important than the object itself,” he said.

Instead, Safer said, many prominent museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, have “spent fortunes” on resisting claims in years of legal wrangling.

Gartner, a child of Holocaust survivors, expressed surprise that institutions devoted to the preservation of culture could be so intransigent on such a plainly moral issue.

“What makes you think they are ethical?” Safer responded.

Museums, he said, are looking for “bragging rights as a way to attract donors… The prime motivation of museum directors is raising money… Their job is to acquire. The more they acquire, the more important they are, the more it inflates their egos… The last thing they want in the world to see is actually giving back money or a valuable work.

“It troubles me that art museums are regarded as representing the best in us, our highest aspirations, but so often, it’s the worst.”

The conference, which also examined the plundering of valuables from the Armenians and Canada’s First Nations, was principally sponsored by the federal government. This year, Canada chairs the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and its chair Mario Silva spoke at the event.

Among the other sponsors were the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and McCord Museum.