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A detail from Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Duet (1623-24). Last year the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts returned the painting to the heirs of Jewish art collector Bruno Spiro, from whom it had been confiscated by the Nazis.
A detail from Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Duet (1623-24). Last year the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts returned the painting to the heirs of Jewish art collector Bruno Spiro, from whom it had been confiscated by the Nazis.

The hunt is now on for Nazi-looted art in Canada Add to ...

How many paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and decorative objects plundered by the Nazis during the Holocaust era are housed in Canadian art museums and private collections, awaiting identification as such and, of course, their return to their rightful owners? Two thousand? One thousand? Several hundred? A handful?

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The correct answer is that no one knows. Until recently, in fact, “there’s been a sense, certainly on the political side, the government side, that, ‘Oh, well, it’s not a big issue in Canada,’” observes Janet Brooke. Former director of Kingston’s Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Brooke was named “provenance research specialist” last week for a federally funded pilot project on paintings in six Canadian institutions (the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery among them), paintings that may once have decorated the mansions of Nazi obergruppenfuhrers or been hidden in abandoned mines.

In eight years, perhaps, or 10, Canada will have a readily accessible national database with images and detailed information, including provenance, on historical art now freighted with big question marks in our galleries and museums. While it’s generally agreed more than 100,000 objets d’art sacked between 1932 and 1945 still require restitution worldwide, Canada’s portion of that tally remains untabulated. And this more than 15 years after it joined 43 other governments to sign the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, pledging, in principle at least, “resources and personnel … to facilitate the identification of all art [plundered] by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted.” It also has been 13 years since the Canadian Museums Association and the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress sponsored A Matter of Justice: A Canadian Symposium on Holocaust-era Cultural Property which, among its eight recommendations, called for a countrywide “assessment” of Canadian “cultural collections” to find those “at risk” of holding spoliated property.

What information has been gathered to date is largely piecemeal, the result more of individual institutional initiative than national strategy. In late 2007, for instance, the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO) conducted a Canadian Heritage-funded survey of its 84 members asking them how many works in their permanent collections had gaps in their ownership history between 1932 and 1945. Only 10 members completed the full survey – but the 10 revealed they had a total of almost 825 works with such gaps, close to 400 of them paintings and sculptures.

Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a work with a gap in provenance is Nazi loot. Indeed, at one time, the National Gallery in Ottawa had just over 100 works with Holocaust-era gaps in their ownership history. However, in the last 13 years it’s managed to research complete provenance for 40 of them, discovering none with Nazi taint. Following the drafting of the Washington Principles, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto became one of the country’s first major cultural institutions to post images online of works from its collection with Nazi-era gaps. Today close to 50 works are up on its site. But some 15 years after the program started, no claims have been filed.

Indeed, only three claims in total have ever been made against Canadian institutions. And in one of those, it was the institution itself, the National Gallery, that, without external prompting, determined that a work in its permanent collection since the mid-1950s was Nazi loot. This was an Édouard Vuillard, Le Salon de Madame Aron (1904, reworked 1934). Research by the gallery in 2004 discovered that a Jewish Parisian art collector, Alfred Lindon, and his son Jacques, had bought the painting in 1940, only to lose track of it that spring as they fled to the United States ahead of Hitler’s occupying armies. At first, the Lindons didn’t believe the Vuillard was theirs. The NGC persisted, however, eventually convincing the family of its ownership and, in 2006, at the direction of the gallery, the Lindons filed a successful claim for restitution.

The other claims have been made against the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In one instance, the painting in question, Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Duet (1623-24), was restituted last year; in the other, related to a 1642 Charles Le Brun oil titled The Deification of Aeneas, the situation is in limbo.

The Honthorst had been owned by a Russian aristocratic family before the First World War, then seized by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution in 1918. The Soviets subsequently offered the painting for sale in Berlin where it was bought by a Jewish arms merchant, Bruno Spiro, in 1931. With Hitler’s rise to power, Spiro found himself in a concentration camp where, in 1936, he committed suicide. Two years later, with Spiro’s widow now in Britain, the Nazis sold the belongings in Spiro’s Berlin villa, including the Honthorst. By 1969, the oil was across the Atlantic, in the MMFA’s permanent collection. Restitution negotiations with Spiro’s heirs began about 40 years later and upon their successful conclusion the heirs consigned the painting to auction in New York, where it sold for almost $3.4-million (U.S.).

The Le Brun, formerly owned by Dutch Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, was seized by the Nazis when they occupied the Netherlands in 1940. Returned to that country by the Allies at war’s end, the painting, among others in a collection that once numbered almost 1,000 works, was then sold at auction by Dutch authorities in 1951, purportedly with the agreement of Goudstikker’s widow. Its purchaser, a New York gallerist, then arranged for the painting’s acquisition, in 1953, by the MMFA. In 2005, the Goudstikkers’ heirs sought the painting’s return. The MMFA, however, argued the Goudstikker family had been fairly and adequately compensated at the end of the Second World War. It continues to hold the work and, according to an MMFA spokesman, “has closed [its] file [on the matter] until additional facts come to light.”

While Canada’s response to the possibility that a considerable or even a modest amount of Holocaust-looted art may be within its borders has been spotty, there are indications the situation is improving. In part this is the result of Canada being named chair last year of the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Canada’s chairmanship, overseen by former Liberal MP Mario Silva, ends March 31. But, as Janet Brooke notes, “It’s created a circumstance whereby there’s been a lot more positive reception to our pleas [for funding, expert personnel and action].” Hence, the hosting last spring of a conference in Ottawa called If Not Now, When? Responsibility and Memory after the Holocaust. This was closely followed by Ottawa’s announcement that it would be giving $191,000 to CAMDO for both provenance research (the results of which will be posted on a searchable database) and the development of guidelines that small and medium-sized museums can use for Holocaust-era research of their own holdings.

Parallel to this is the planned “rejigging” of the Canadian Heritage Information Network/Artefacts Canada site – a national portal to works in public collections – to have what Brooke calls “a provenance searchability component.” “So let’s take the Vuillard/Lindon issue. It’s solved, of course … but if Mr. Lindon could have gone to that site and keyed in the term ‘Lindon’ he would have found the painting, had provenance been searchable.”

The official termination of the CAMDO grant is March 31, 2015. But, says Brooke, “We very much hope there will be another phase. We haven’t asked yet for that nor received any indication this will be the case. But the hope is this will be the beginning of a longer-term initiative that will take us beyond the six original participants.”

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