On 25 March 2022, the Ateneo Veneto, Venice, Italy, hosted an international conference called “Why are we still looking for Nazi-looted art in Italy? The importance of provenance research and negotiated solutions”.
The objective of the conference was to raise awareness of the subject of Nazi-looted art in Italy, emphasizing the urgent need for provenance research in Italian art collections and for the adoption of fair and just solutions in line with the Washington Principles on Nazi Era Confiscated Assets which Italy embraced in 1998.
The conference was an opportunity to suggest practical solutions available to those who, in the years from the 1930s to the 1990s, inadvertently acquired some of the millions of unlawfully dispossessed artworks, books and other collectables stolen or forcibly sold during the Nazi era. There have been few conferences in Italy on Nazi-looted art, and they have been rather academic in nature. This conference brought together experts from all over the world who “live and breathe” the subject to help collectors do “the right thing” by the families of victims of the Nazis whilst at the same time avoid passing the problem onto their families.
In total, over 250 delegates attended the conference, in person and online. A full recording of the conference is available on YouTube:
English version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KVTbhovTgA
Italian version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvoH_FFNgmU .
The outcome of the conference can be summarised as follows:
- Italy must do more to remedy the terrible losses inflicted by the Nazis in the years 1933-1945.
- Whilst Italy was amongst the 44 countries that agreed to comply with the 11 principles on Nazi-confiscated art adopted at the Washington Convention of 1998, unfortunately, there have been few examples of compliance.
- A recent exception is the settlement reached by Fondazione Federico Cerrutti in Turin with the Arens Unger family who lost a painting by Jacopo del Sellaio during the Nazi era. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea and, described the story of the painting acquired by collector Federico Cerrutti without knowledge of the painting’s Nazi era history. The settlement included payment of an undisclosed sum to the heirs, the painting remained in Turin, and the Castello di Rivoli agreed to explain the story of the Arens Unger provenance in its wall text and future catalogues. Further, as part of the settlement, the museum sent reproductions of the painting to each of the four living heirs. This is a textbook example of a fair and just solution as contemplated by the authors of the Washington Principles. The heirs of the Arens Unger family had lost their ownership claim as a result of the passage of time, yet the Cerrutti Fondation settled with the heirs. Every Italian museum is encouraged to follow that example.
- The conference served as a sad reminder that most Italian public museums (State and Municipal) refuse to engage with the heirs of those persecuted during the Nazi era, thereby ignoring the Washington Principles. Not only do they fail to acknowledge the problematic provenance of Nazi-confiscated artworks in their collection; they reject the suggestion of fair and just solutions. Washington Principle 8 reads: If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognizing this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case. Other European countries have amended their national law in order to facilitate settlements around artworks unlawfully dispossessed during the Nazi era. Nearly 60 years after the end of World War II, it is time for Italy to follow suit.
Pierre Valentin, Partner at Constantine Cannon LLP, said:
“This is about justice and the urgent need to remedy the mistakes of the past. Italian law must be changed to allow the return of Nazi-confiscated art in Italian public collections, in accordance with the Washington Principles”.
Following the conference, a group of speakers led by Katharina Hüls-Valenti, a provenance researcher based in Venice, and Pierre Valentin, an art lawyer based in London, have joined forces to encourage the Italian government to invest in provenance research and to persuade them that when an artwork is identified as having been unlawfully dispossessed during the Nazi era, steps must be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution. If Italian law must be changed to achieve that result, then the political will to change the law must be found. ICOM, whose mission includes establishing ethical standards for museums, will be encouraged to publicly name museums that refuse to apply the Washington Principles and deny them membership of ICOM.
Participants commented as follows:
“I truly enjoyed the conference!”
“A brief word to congratulate you on a most successful conference. I learned a lot and met interesting participants, with whom I shall stay in touch.”
“Thank you for organising such an interesting and thought-provoking conference.”
“The conference was so well prepared and organised.”
“The conference was clearly a great success. I for one learned a lot and met interesting participants, with whom I shall stay in touch.”
“Grazie per la giornata ricca di spunti e approfondimenti.”
The programme of the conference is enclosed, with the bios of the speakers.
The conference was generously supported by Boies Schiller Flexner, Constantine Cannon LLP, Stonehage Fleming and DH Office. It was held under the patronage of the Ateneo Veneto, The Fondazione per i Beni Culturali Ebraici in Italia, the Ufficio culturale dell’Ambasciata di Israele, Roma and the Consolato Generale della Repubblica Federale di Germania, Milano.
For more information about the conference, please contact Pierre Valentin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT BOIES SCHILLER FLEXNER:
Boies Schiller Flexner (www.bsfllp.com) is a firm of internationally recognized trial lawyers, crisis managers, and strategic advisers known for creative, aggressive, and efficient pursuit of success for clients. Our attorneys have an established track record of winning complex, groundbreaking, and cross-border matters in diverse circumstances and industries for many of the world’s most sophisticated companies.
ABOUT CONSTANTINE CANNON LLP:
Founded in 1994 in New York City, Constantine Cannon LLP is an international law firm. Its global art and cultural law practice based in London supports clients around the world. A group of eight art law specialists is dedicated to advising art collectors, family offices, galleries, art dealers and museums on all aspects of collecting art, transacting in art and resolving art disputes. Negotiated solutions of ownership disputes related to art illegally taken or forcibly sold during the Nazi-era are a hallmark of our art law practice.
ABOUT STONEHAGE FLEMING:
Stonehage Fleming is one of the world’s leading independently owned multi- family offices and the largest in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), as measured by its breadth of services, geographic reach and by assets under management, advice and administration. Stonehage Fleming provides a range of services from long-term strategic planning and investments to day-to-day advice and administration to the world’s leading families and wealth creators. Find out more at: www.stonehagefleming.com
ABOUT DH OFFICE:
DH Office is a museum and exhibition services company with offices in Switzerland and Italy. The company provides a full service spectrum for museums and other exhibition organisers, including strategic consulting, exhibition production, production of artworks and a wide range of outsourcing services for museums, ranging from the provision of educational programmes, to communication, marketing, administration and staffing of institutions. DH Office also offers international strategy and touring exhibition management in partnership with The Museum Box. Projects in Venice include the production of numerous exhibitions, a large range of services provided to TBA21–Academy’s Ocean Space (Chiesa di San Lorenzo), as well as the restoration of the Jewish Museum, which is currently in progress.