Paul Rosenberg saw what was coming when the Nazis swept across France. By the time his home city of Paris fell under occupation, he had already secreted away nearly 140 paintings from his gallery and collection in a bank vault in southern France and fled to the United States. Among the hidden paintings was a work by one of Rosenberg’s favorite painters, the 1928 Henri Matisse piece titled Odalisque.
Rosenberg was a formidable collector and an early patron of painters like Pablo Picasso and Matisse. But he was also a Jew and had underestimated the scope of the systematic plunder of art the Nazis undertook during the war. A tipster, possibly a bank employee under pressure or someone trying to curry favor with the new conquerors, revealed Rosenberg’s secret vault. Soon, the Nazis had taken much of his art and possessions, as they had done to countless Jews across occupied Europe.
After the war, Rosenberg launched an aggressive campaign to reclaim his stolen collection. He found some, including several in the hands of a Swiss dealer who had sold many paintings for the Nazis. In a likely dramatic confrontation, Rosenberg walked into the dealer’s Zurich office and began pointing at paintings that used to hang in his Paris gallery. Through the courts, he got many pieces back. But others had been scattered across the world, lost in a web of dealers, auction houses, and galleries that neither asked about or likely wanted to know the tainted history of their dubiously acquired works.
Nearly 50 years later, the Seattle Art Museum was contacted by a descendant of the timber magnate who had donated a Matisse to the museum. He had seen the painting in a book on Jewish art stolen by the Nazis and wondered if it was the same piece.
To find out, the museum turned to Ori Soltes and his Washington-based Holocaust Art Restitution Project, or HARP. Born out of his work with the B’nai B’rith, Solte’s organization had been tracing stolen works since 1997 as part of a larger push by Holocaust survivors and their kin to reclaim money and other possessions purloined during the Nazi era.
Soltes pored through French and American archives from the late 1940s and early 1950s, tracing the then-deceased Rosenberg’s correspondences with the Allied forces after the war as he tracked down his collection. He queried the gallery that sold the work to the timber magnate and found the painting had a hole in its provenance, about 10 years unaccounted for from 1940 into the 1950s when it reappeared in the Pacific Northwest. He presented his evidence to the Seattle Art Museum, which then returned the Matisse the Rosenberg’s heirs.
The museum had no legal obligation to return the painting. It had been legally bought by the donor and legally given to the museum. It is unclear whether the gallery that sold it knew of its history and probably never inquired even though evidence pointed to theft, Soltes says. Perhaps fearing negative press from displaying a work stolen by the Nazis, or struck by moral obligation, the Seattle Art Museum chose to return it in 1999 to Rosenberg’s heirs without a legal fight.
Thousands of pieces of art were plundered by the Germans during the war.
This insatiable desire for art fed the whimsy of regime leaders and art
collectors like Hermann Goering; the Nazis put forward a myth that Germany
was a defender of culture, albeit a narrowly and racially defined culture.
Stolen art sold to dealers who chose to look the other way also pumped
cash into the German war machine. It wasn’t just paintings that
were taken; furniture, sculpture, jewelry, and anything the Nazis could
steal was seized from Jews before and as they were carted off to gas chambers.
Often they rely on the Holocaust Art Restitution Project to do the searching for them. Many don’t know where to start, Soltes says. Time and little documentation often gives Holocaust survivors and their relatives little reference point on where to start. Often a claim to an artwork is a vague memory from the mind of a 90-year-old or a childhood recollection of a mother’s prized lithographs.
For some, the goal is to collect what was theirs, an attempt years later to right a small portion of the massive injustice they were subjected to. But for many, like the descendants of a Jewish banker beaten to death when he refused to sign over his artworks to the Nazis, searching out a painting is a way of reclaiming a person who disappeared long ago. Many Jews who died had almost all their physical presence erased, stolen, or destroyed. For the grandson of the banker, Soltes is tracking down a Degas. The man wants the painting back mostly so that his son can have a physical link to the great-grandfather who himself was stolen more than 50 years ago.
“Our interest is putting history back on track. For 50 years no one worried about this. That meant a large swatch of history has been expunged or distorted,” Soltes says. “If a family has been expunged, you can’t do anything about that, but it would be nice to at least return that family’s connection to a painting to its history.”
Until he was in his late teens, Soltes planned to become a rabbi, that is, if his dream of playing professional basketball fell through. Judaism was a strong influence in his family; his father was rabbi at a New York City Reform synagogue and later led a Long Island congregation. While the family held an important place in the Jewish community, as a rabbi’s son, Soltes felt pressure to act in a way that upheld his father’s image in the Jewish community. Unlike a doctor or professor’s kids, he felt he had to behave like everyone thought the rabbi’s boy should.
Soltes changed his plans when he went to Haverford in 1969. The academic rigor of Haverford appealed to him, and the advice of two alumni, Jim Katowitz ’59 and Joel Cook ’69, along with the desire to escape New York for a while, convinced him to enroll.
College fed the intellectual voracity and drive to learn that had been with him since he was young. It also gave Soltes a different perspective on his religion. Judaism was something that was passed to him by his birth, but he realized he had never seen it as an intellectual pursuit, only something that he knew as a rabbi’s son. At Haverford, he decided he wanted to devote himself to scholarship.
“I grew up with a strong sense of Judaism but also a strong sense
of interest and inquiry. I always felt the need to be more intellectually
mature, not merely emotionally attached to Judaism by studying it. When
I got to college, I felt like I had wasted the first few years of my life,”
“Haverford was a natural but exponential expansion of my hunger to know everything,” he says. “I’d pore through the catalogue of courses with my tongue hanging out.”
After college, Soltes took a year off, working in New York as a building manager before heading to Princeton for graduate work in classics. At Princeton, he found a system that valued rigid and dry academic pursuit over intellectual curiosity and passion for studying classics. He persisted, but had troubles with his thesis advisors and eventually finished his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University.
It was while he was working on his doctoral thesis that Soltes in effect returned to his Jewish roots. He taught courses on Judaism in the classics even though he had no formal training in Jewish studies. To make up for that, he relied on his knowledge of the classics and “pushed it in a Jewish direction.”
Soltes also discovered art history when the sister of a former girlfriend called to ask if he would help translate French decorative arts material for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He found much of art history fit neatly into what he had already studied in classics. That led to an offer to be the curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, a job he took in 1991 and held until 1998. During that time he boosted the museum’s fundraising, built up membership, and put on about 80 exhibits over a seven-year period.
The exhibits he showed at the B’nai B’rith museum not only featured Jewish artists but also strove to demonstrate how their Judaism affected their work. An exhibit on Moroccan Jewish art, for example, would also include a history of the many centuries that Jews lived in Morocco to give context to the pieces.
“It asks ‘Is there a relationship between the fact that they are Jews and their art? Does Judaism in any way inform the art?’” Soltes says. “The answer may be no, but you have to ask that question.”
It’s a question that Soltes explores in his book, Fixing the World: American Jewish Painters in the 20th Century (Brandeis University Press, 2002), which focuses on several Jewish 20th-century American artists. He concludes that the enormous upheaval in Jewish life, culminating with the Holocaust, has profoundly affected the work of artists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.
A non-Jewish artist like Jackson Pollock responds to the chaotic 20th century with a painting that literally explodes on the canvas, Soltes says, his splattered paint representing the seeming explosion of society by two world wars, the destruction of an old world order.
By contrast, for the Jewish artist, the 1940s and 1950s were about trying to rebuild a culture that was nearly wiped out in European death camps, Soltes said. The question for them is how to put the world back together after it was nearly destroyed, how to put their lives back together.
“That question is being asked in the aftermath of the Holocaust,” he says, “their consciousness of being Jews and how do we as Jews respond to this most extraordinary event.”
An estimated 6 million Jews perished during the Holocaust. The Nazis created a highly organized system for this mass murder, creating a web of work and death camps across Eastern Europe fed by rail lines emanating from ghettoes. They employed this same sense of order to the plunder of Jewish possessions, Soltes says. For example, when the Nazis seized Vienna in 1938 as part of the unification between Austria and Germany, all Jews were required to fill out inventories of their wealth. Bank accounts, investments, real estate, pieces of art, and household items all went onto the census of Jewish goods. That way, the Nazis knew where everything was when they came to seize the property.
“It would have been one basis for knowing what was out there,” Soltes says. “You’ve got a whole bureaucracy just dealing with this, a fairly efficient means of plundering.”
After the war, Jews who survived faced several hurdles to recovering
their art. Much of it, especially less famous pieces, couldn’t be
easily traced. Some were in the hands of private collectors, locked up
in homes where few people could see a work and ask questions. Others were
sold by galleries that asked little about the history of a piece and gave
even less information to buyers. Still more had been seized again by the
Soviets, who took the stolen works and locked them away in archives. Cold
War politics prevented those in the West from searching behind the Iron
Curtain for stolen art.
Anticipating that reclaiming art would be next, Soltes helped organize a conference in Washington in 1997 that included members of Congress, art historians, and Stuart Eizenstat, the point man for President Clinton on Holocaust restitution. After that conference, HARP was created.
Soltes eventually left B’nai B’rith in 1998 and now runs HARP in a Dupont Circle apartment crammed with books on art history, classics, and philosophy. He and three other HARP researchers study the provenance of suspect pieces by going through archives, corresponding with museums, collectors, galleries, and the memories of families. The families usually pay him for the work, although HARP also receives grants.
Often it is a difficult task to find a piece of art and link it to the original owner. Much of the stolen art is not by famous artists like Matisse, and would attract less attention hanging in someone’s living room or if on public display. Ownership records were lost for many pieces, and often the only evidence of ownership is a photograph or auction catalogue. Many works of art have holes in their histories during the 1940s and 1950s. The original owners often died during the Holocaust. But these factors, taken together, usually prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a work was stolen, Soltes says.
“If someone can show that a work entered into a Jewish family before the early 1930s and its current owner has a provenance listing that picks up in the late 1940s, it is usually well demonstrated that the work is stolen,” he adds.
The ability to actually get a work returned varies. Larger museums often cooperate when pieces in their collections are identified as stolen, he says, fearing bad publicity from holding looted work. Many have identified works in their collections as suspected Nazi plunder in an effort to come clean. The task can be harder with collectors and auctioneers who see the work as an investment they don’t want to lose.
Frequently it is only a moral argument that can compel a piece to be returned, Soltes says. There is also little legal framework to prevent art from being sold without any questions on whether it might have a tainted history. Unlike the title searches required to buy a car or house, there is nothing that obligates a seller to disclose if the work had been stolen in the past. Auctioneers and galleries are often guilty of passing on stolen art because they don’t want to know if it was taken from Jews, Soltes says.
“Up until the late 1990s, museums, galleries, and auction houses
had been culpable in not paying attention to provenance,” he says.
“That might not be significant if not for the fact that everyone
who studies art history is taught to want to know everything about a work
of art, including its history."
HARP is currently working on a survey of the art stolen from Viennese Hews during the wat. It's a project funded in part by one of the major auction houses, a sign, according to Soltes, that his work has made the art world much more aware of the problm of art take by the Nazis.
"At this point, no museum, gallery, or auction house can make the claim that this is not on their radar screen," he says. "The consciousness level has been raised."