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by Rhonda Spivak, March 17, 2022


An “estimated 600,000 works of art” were “systematically” stolen from Jews by the Nazis just prior to and during the Second World War, or  alternatively Jews were forced to sell these artworks for a small fraction of their worth to the Nazis, says Dr. Stephen Borys, the Director and CEO of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Qaumajuq— the new Inuit Art Centre. “Many of these looted artworks ended up in museums around the world, including North America,” he notes. He adds that  after the war there were attempts to return the artworks to their rightful owners , but today there are “ tens of thousands”  of  Nazi looted artworks  “that are still missing,” many of which are in private collections. 
Borys  gave an interesting and informative lecture  on “Finding Nazi-Looted Artwork in North American Museums And Collections” at the virtual Limmud Winnipeg 2022 on Sunday, March 6.
Borys , who holds an adjunct professorship at the University of Winnipeg, previously held curatorial posts at the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; Oberlin College, Ohio, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. He has  an Executive MBA, a PhD in Art History from McGill University, a MA in Art History from the University of Toronto, and a BA Honours from the University of Winnipeg.
Borys noted that modern artworks, such as impressionist paintings and those done by Pablo Picasso, were considered by the Nazis to be degenerate,  inappropriate paintings. The Nazis confiscated these works of modern art in 1937, and then  passed a law legalizing the sale of this confiscated art .They planned a large international art auction in Switzerland in 1939.The Nazi regime  profited extensively from the sale of confiscated works by famous artists like  Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh. “Many of these artworks re-entered the art world and ended up in private and public collections, Borys explains, noting that “Galleries purchased these artworks without knowledge that they were stolen.”

In his presentation, Borys stated that there are several movies and books that have focused on Nazi looted artworks, which have given public attention to this issue. His presentation examined Holocaust-era Provenance Research in North America. As he noted, beginning in the 1990s, there was increased international pressure  and awareness  to resolve the issue of Nazi-looted assets, including artworks. In 1998, 44 nations, including Canada, endorsed the Washington Principles, which called on nations to develop legal/regulatory ways to deal with the issue, and on museums to identify and return Nazi-looted artworks to their rightful Jewish owners,
Borys  outlined how Holocaust-era Provenance research  specifically examines artworks in public collections “where there are gaps in their history from 1938- 1945,” which is when The Nazis looted/seized artwork from Jews. Borys is Co-chair of CAMDO Canadian Holocaust Era Research project for Canadian museums. He indicated that researchers are painstakingly filling in  these gaps in order  to identify the rightful owners of these works. Most museums have adopted the Washington Principles and continue to research their collections to ascertain if they have any of these artworks.“ Provenance  research never ends,” Borys emphasized. 
The WAG has not had any of  Nazi looted  works, Borys said, but it has  many works in its collection where  the WAG doesn’t know the full chain of custody since a given artwork was was created.” 
Borys spoke of a high profile case that is before the U.S. Supreme Court which recently heard about the disputed ownership of a painting by Camille Pissarro that Lilly Cassirer Neubauer, a Jewish woman who was fleeing Nazi Germany, sold in 1939. The canvas has belonged to Spain since 1993, where it is part of the collection of a state run Madrid museum. The canvas had apparently disappeared after Lily Cassirer Neubauer was forced to sell it for just $360 (a sum she never received)in exchange for visas for her and her husband to leave Germany. After the war, she sought the return of the painting and 10 years later, she won a $13,000 settlement from the German government through the U.S. Court of Restitution Appeals.


However, Pissaro's artwork  resurfaced in the U.S., where a Swiss collector bought it in 1976, and sold it to the Spanish museum.


Claude Cassirer, Lily Cassirer Neubauer’s grandson of California saw the Pissaro canvas in 2001, and called for it to be returned. However, by then it had already been hanging at the Spanish museum for eight years. According to Spanish law, public possession of someone else’s property for six years is enough to transfer good title, even if the artwork was originally stolen, as was the case here. But under California law once an object has been stolen, good title can never pass on to any subsequent owner, even if that owner purchased it in good faith.


As Borys explained, it remains to be seen whether the US Supreme Court will rule that the painting ought to return to the family.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.