New State Law Requires Museums to Identify Nazi-Looted Art



MoMA visitors look at a painting by Pablo Picasso, which is included in the MoMA’s Provenance Research Project. Photo: Natalie Demaree

Artwork elicits various emotions in different people. But for Judith Evan Goldstein, art is a way to cope with traumatic personal history.

Goldstein is one of the estimated 35,000 Holocaust survivors who call New York home. She said her emotions are stirred when she sees certain paintings in museums that remind her of the war. Because Goldstein is both an artist and a musician, she said these paintings often translate into a soundtrack in her mind. “I hear music and I feel sad,” she said.

In August, Governor Kathy Hochul signed a series of new laws intended to support Holocaust survivors in educational, cultural and financial institutions. Within the legislative package is a law requiring museums to identify displayed artwork stolen during Europe’s Nazi era with a placard or other signage. Though the law was implemented immediately at signing, the parameters of enforcement are not specified and many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown have not yet implemented changes.

“I can’t imagine that a museum is going to put up, as the law said, a little sign that says, ‘this was stolen.’ I mean, that’ll be the day,” said Bette Sparago, a volunteer at the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center and a frequent art museum-goer. 

According to a memorandum accompanying the legislation, “the Nazis looted around 600,000 paintings from Jews during World War II, with the goals of enriching the Third Reich and eradicating Jewish culture.” 

According to Goldstein, “a lot of art was stolen and taken because the people themselves were murdered. Six million were murdered. A million and a half were children,” she said. 

The Nazi-era Provenance Internet Portal, produced and managed by the American Alliance of Museums, is a registry of Nazi-era artwork in museum collections. It lists 16 museums in New York with 2,370 Nazi-era pieces, including the MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Advocates for the legislation said many of these museums did not recognize the artwork’s dark history until this decade.

“It’s not just the most tremendous genocide to have taken place, it’s also the greatest theft in history, in terms of cultural property,” said Wesley Fisher, director of research at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and World Jewish Restitution Organization. “This is a good idea to make this known, but the legislation isn’t dealing with the details.”

According to Fisher, the law does not address artwork that isn’t on view, that is on loan in different states or that was looted by Nazis outside of continental Europe. 

“I think this is a statement law,” he said. “It’s a law that says New York state is in favor of people understanding that the Holocaust did this.”

Long before the law, in April 2000, researchers at the MoMA launched the Provenance Research Project on the museum’s website. The spreadsheet currently identifies over one thousand works created before 1946 and acquired after 1932 that were or could have been in Europe during the Nazi era. According to the website, the project is intended to identify any potentially unlawfully obtained works in its collection.

A recent survey by the Claims Conference, a nonprofit serving Holocaust survivors, found New York to be one of 10 states with the lowest Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen-Z. 58% of respondents couldn’t name a concentration camp or ghetto, the survey indicates.

“In the 70s, New York state didn’t have anything. A whole group of us really pushed for New York State education, and there is a curriculum,” Sparago said about Holocaust education.

She said that the rise of antisemitism is in part because certain school districts in New York have discontinued teaching about the Holocaust.

For Goldstein, the memories will never fade. “To me, the word ‘war’ scares the hell out of me because I know what it’s like,” she said. 

While museums are still figuring out how to respond to this new law, art auction house Christie’s established its own restitution department in 1966. The department was first involved in the Mauerbach sale, a major auction in Vienna which benefitted the victims of the Holocaust. That team has been central to the resolution of at least 250 claims over the last two decades, according to Richard Aronowitz, global head of restitution at Christie’s. 

“If we have a painting that’s been restituted for sale, we are pretty much going to shout it from the rooftops anyway because it actually makes a painting more desirable because that’s an interesting aspect to the provenance,” said Deborah Coy, a senior specialist at Christie’s. 

While Coy said none of the museum curators she knows have mentioned this new law to her, she does see benefit in providing as descriptive of a provenance as possible.  “A lot of people find it very interesting. A lot of people are more emotional about it than others,” she said. 

The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum did not respond to the Midtown Gazette’s requests for comment.