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Labels on Looted Art: The AC Interviews Marc Masurovsky on New York Law

October 19, 2022

On August 10, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a law requiring art museums across the state to prominently identify art stolen by Nazis in placards placed alongside the works. The law covers pieces that experienced theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale, or other involuntary means during the Nazi era in Europe.

This action follows continued efforts by the state to return Nazi-looted work over the last several years and educate New Yorkers about the Holocaust and its impact.

We spoke with Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), to discuss the importance of this legislation, how it will impact Holocaust survivors, and whether we can expect other governments to develop similar laws for all types of stolen heritage.

Could you explain the background of this law? Why was it passed now?

The signage law that NY Governor Kathy Hochul enacted on August 10, 2022, was part of a larger legislative package addressing issues relative to Holocaust education and the fight against antisemitism in New York. Press reports and interviews with numerous Jewish leaders point to the fact that with this signage law, museums are being recruited to play a role in educating the public about Nazi anti-Jewish persecutions expressed through the seizure and confiscation of Jewish-owned art. The timing of this law is odd since it does not seem to be the culminating point for any political or educational campaigns in NY on the treatment of works suspected of having been looted or misappropriated during the Nazi era (1933-1945) which reside in NY State museums.

As an expert on art looted during the Nazi era, do you think this law will help some of these objects return to their country of origin?

The law itself stipulates that museums, where practicable, should develop some form of signage to be displayed prominently so that visitors can see and read them inside the museum. These signs or panels will alert the public that there are works and objects of art on display that were presumably looted or misappropriated during the Nazi era. Two questions come to mind: Will the signage also apply to works and objects not on view but are part of the permanent collection stored off-site? Will the affected museums point out objects and works which they suspect were looted but have not yet been returned to their rightful owners? If museum leaders adopt such a stance, it may make them even more accountable as to how they “handle” these looted items. On that point alone, the law is controversial. However, if museums develop signage that points to works and objects in their collection that they acquired after they were restituted to the rightful owners, that’s a different matter altogether. If they produce such signage, they will indeed contribute to the overall discussion about the Holocaust-related persecution of Jews manifested through the confiscation and seizure of their property during the Nazi era. These signs could also be an opportunity for the museums to enlighten their visitors as to the provenance of these objects. An ancillary question would be: Will the actual provenance of the contested objects accompany the objects either physically (an actual label) or virtually (some form of QR code that, when scanned, guides the visitor to the provenance)? For restituted objects in museum collections, the law will have a beneficial effect because it is an act of “transparency” initiated by the museum to be open to its visitors about the origin or “provenance” of these works. On the other hand, I doubt seriously that a museum would expose itself voluntarily by revealing to the world at large that there are items in their collections which were looted during the Nazi era and not yet returned to their rightful owners.

New York State Senator, and the bill’s sponsor, Anna M. Kaplan, reports that some 600,000 paintings were stolen from Jewish people during the Holocaust. Should other state or national governments enact similar laws?

The figure of 600,000 has no bearing on facts. It would be best to say that millions of cultural objects were plundered and misappropriated during the Nazi era, a number of which were paintings. If the law bears fruit and museums in New York State develop signage explaining the presence of looted works in their collections, it will set a standard for other States and other governments to follow suit. Such developments are on the rise in museums across Western Europe. In the US, however, the NY State law sets a precedent for other States to follow.

How will this law make a difference for Holocaust survivors, their families, and the general public who visit these museums?

If this signage law is applied across the spectrum of cultural institutions in New York State, it may help to soften these museums’ traditionally harsh and dismissive stances when faced with a restitution claim submitted by the families of Nazi victims. For the public at large, it is a win-win because, traditionally, museums have been loath to discuss how traumatic historical events can shape the ownership path of objects in their collections through illicit asks of seizure and confiscation.

Countless stolen artifacts remain in museums worldwide. Do you think this law will have an impact on other types of looted objects?

Time will tell. The debate has grown fierce and shown signs of effectiveness over the presence in museums worldwide of objects forcibly removed and extracted from communities persecuted and exploited during colonial times. This debate has evolved in parallel to the global discussions (mainly Americas and Europe) on Nazi/Fascist looting of Jewish-owned art collections and the restitution thereof to rightful owners. The same goes for objects forcibly removed from “conflict zones” (mostly antiquities being illicitly extracted and removed from their matrix to be sold on the international art market under the cover of internecine warfare). My only wish is that we work towards a convergence of these three movements in order to strengthen the fight for the protection of the cultural rights of aggrieved communities and the restoration of their dignity through the restitution and repatriation of their property.

Marc Masurovsky is the co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), an expert historian on assets looted during the Nazi era, and a former consultant for the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations.