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The Globe and Mail

Canadian museums take part in project to track down Nazi-looted paintings

FILE PHOTOS of the Art Gallery of Ontario, taken Sept 21 2012. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Six Canadian art museums are participating in a project that's expected to help them determine if they have any Nazi-looted paintings in their permanent collections, as well as provide guidelines that other Canadian institutions can use to make the same determinations.

Participants were announced Wednesday morning in Ottawa by the project administrator, the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO). The two-year pilot project, known now as the Holocaust-era Provenance Research and Best-Practice Guidelines Project, was actually announced last April by Canadian Heritage. At that time, the federal department said it was committing close to $191,000 to the project which, it said, would "raise the international profile of Canada," in the quest to find Nazi-looted art in public institutions and, where possible, restore that art to its rightful owners or heirs. Announcement of the project coincided with the start of Canada's one-year chairmanship of the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

The six participating museums, a mix of large and small, mostly Ontario-based, are the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), Art Gallery of Windsor, McMaster Museum of Art (Hamilton), Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), University of Lethbridge Art Gallery (Lethbridge, Alta.) and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The eventual goal is to create a national database. Project participants were chosen largely on a first-come/first-served basis. In preparing its application for a grant from the federal Museums Assistance Program in 2012, CAMDO requested letters of support for the project from its members, knowing that the funds being applied for could only cover the participation of a handful of organizations, with a focus on paintings.

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It's unclear how many so-called "spoliated" cultural objects – paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphics, prints and decorative works obtained illegally or by force from European institutions and private collectors by Nazi German authorities between 1932 and 1945 – may be housed in Canadian art museums. Few of these art museums, especially those of smaller size, have dedicated provenance researchers or provenance budgets. A 2007 CAMDO survey completed by 12 Canadian institutions found that an estimated 822 cultural objects, almost 400 of them paintings and sculpture, required some sort of provenance research. The WAG estimates it has about 12 paintings, mostly by German, French and Italian artists, that have gaps in their provenance dating to the Holocaust era, while the AGO has almost 50, including works by van Dyck, Reni, Giordano and van Gogh.

The CAMDO project will be led by Janet Brooke, a provenance research specialist and former director of Kingston's Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Joined by Cornell-educated research assistant Nancy Karrels, she will "conduct site visits to examine relevant paintings and documentation, pursue their investigations in libraries and archives here and abroad and develop best-practice guidelines for dissemination," according to CAMDO.

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