The National Gallery of Berlin was forced to revert a decision made in the 1930s and return paintings that were looted by Nazis during World War II. This is just one example of how museums are recognizing their mistakes, rectifying them, and returning objects which have been taken from other countries. The first step towards reconciliation should be for museums to own up to what they’ve done wrong- not only with art but also with newly found cultural artifacts or stolen property. Museum directors everywhere need to realize the moral obligation they carry as stewards over collections entrusted into their care
This narrative may be dubbed “the honor of thieves,” but it’s about more than just criminals doing the right thing. It’s acting outside of social conventions to fix a mistake.
Here’s a German museum that goes above and above by offering to purchase back Nazi-looted artworks from their Jewish owners.
The Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin’s Old National Gallery, acquired back a treasured Camille Pissarro artwork that had joined its collection during the Third Reich this week. Armand Doryville, a German-Jewish lawyer, held the French Impressionist painting A square in La Roche-Guyon until he was compelled to “sell” it to the Nazis.
Purchase of a prize
Doryville’s heirs, who live in France, recently flew to Berlin to request the repatriation of the Pissarro artwork. The Alte Nationalgalerie did not reject the claim, as is customary in the case of Jewish claims for Nazi-looted art. Instead, the National Gallery returned the artwork and paid an unknown price to rehang it on the museum’s display wall.
Pissarro’s painting is “of immense significance” for the collection, according to Museum director Ralph Gleis, since it represents the beginning of the artist’s transition to Impressionism, which is the institution’s “core holding.”
Consider the common reaction in restitution situations, as shown in the 2015 film “Woman In Gold,” starring Dame Helen Mirren.
The narrative was inspired by the actual tale of Maria Altman, an elderly Jewish immigrant residing in Los Angeles who fought the Austrian government for over 10 years to retrieve Gustave Klimt’s picture of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.
Making a command decision
When Altman’s family resided in Vienna, the Nazis took the picture. She brought her case to the United States after being repeatedly rejected by the Austrian government.
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The case was heard by the Supreme Court (Republic of Austria v. Altman) and the case was won. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 2004, which applies retrospectively, was the basis for the court’s decision.
The Pissarro painting was most likely part of the 1,400 artworks transported aboard trains destined for Berlin, as shown in the film “The Monuments Men.”
When Degas and Renoir saw him on the street, they refused to welcome him because he was a Jew.
In the ranks, there is anti-Semitism.
According to Stephanie Rachum, who authored “Camille Pissarro’s Jewish Identity” in 2016, after Degas died, he wrote to a friend, “What went on within that old Israelite mind of his?” Did he merely consider returning to a period when we were almost completely oblivious of his heinous race?”
Doryville’s descendants consented to sell Pissarro’s painting because of its value to the Alte Nationalgalerie and all the art enthusiasts that visit it. “We will continue to fight with all our might…not to allow the atrocity that transpired be forgotten,” Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Foundation, stated, grateful for their willingness.
In light of the situation
Another approach to understand the significance of this tale is to look at a report from October.
J-Wire, Australia’s and New Zealand’s digital Jewish news daily, reported on more than 2,000 anti-Semitism incidents in Germany last year, up from roughly the same amount the year before.
When it comes to the Jewish people, Germany has a painful history, both past and current. While doing the right thing should not be rewarded with applause, in today’s contentious society, I give the Alte Nationalgalerie top marks.
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