During the party’s reign, Nazi Germany committed massive art theft across Europe. While more than 70 years ago, the effects of those crimes are still felt today.
“Muscarelle Explorations: Art Repatriation” will address the cultural impact art theft by the Nazi's has had through a series of lectures and movie screenings that will take place at the Muscarelle Museum of Art and other locations on the College of William and Mary campus.
“The pillaging of Jewish art by the Nazis was widespread, and so these stories, particularly of Holocaust survivors but also their families trying to reclaim those artworks, is pretty common,” said Jessica Krauss, president of the Art and Cultural Heritage Law Society at the College’s Law School.
Krauss said her organization is helping facilitate logistics and publicity for the symposium.
“I thought (Muscarelle Explorations: Art Repatriation) had a really great group of speakers on a topic that’s interesting and today still pretty relevant,” Krauss said.
Two guest lecturers are Eden Burgess and Thomas Kline, attorneys with Cultural Heritage Partners. Burgess said their firm is the only one in the country that focuses exclusively on art culture, cultural heritage and museums.
“Tom and I have been working together for about 15 years — and we’ve done a number of litigations of Nazi looting claims, and basically war and other conflicts, and how that leads to destroyed cultural heritage and trying to help our clients recover objects or damages from those kinds of losses,” Burgess said.
This symposium highlights how Hitler used both violence and cultural eradication to beat people down.
“He also wanted to destroy cultures so the only one that remained was the one he thought was the correct one, the Germanic classical culture,” Burgess said. “A central part of his strategy in the war was stripping collections, Jewish collections of course, and museums of degenerate art, of Judaica, of art he did not think was Germanic in nature — and in doing so stripping the Jewish community of a vital part of their identity.”
“It's an interesting story. We have all kind of grown up having a pretty good understanding of what we consider World War II and the Holocaust — I think (art repatriation) is an interesting lens to look at the war through, just how thoroughly systematic this persecution was,” Krauss said.
When the Nazis stole the art, it became the German government’s property rather than the Jewish owner’s. Burgess said even today more art stolen by the Nazis is being uncovered.
“There is still not wide and broad awareness among some major collectors and institutions that there can still be Nazi-looted art floating around,” Burgess said.
She said most people think the Nazis were excellent record keepers, so all the art stolen has been recorded. However, if they stole personal art owned by someone who perished in the Holocaust, it can be difficult to track down.
Burgess’ lecture at the symposium will cover how the courts have been used to try to recover, or at the very least compensate for what was lost.
“It has a little bit of a social justice aspect as well because all these years later people can still find some justice in what’s happened to their relatives,” Krauss said.
Burgess said art repatriation relates to Williamsburg because of the significant historical importance of the area.
“(Williamsburg) is one of the foundations of our country’s very creation, existence and survival,” Burgess said. “The people in Williamsburg, in my experience, have a particularly deep understanding of the importance of history and cultural heritage and art basically that whole world, and how important those issues can be to a community’s identity and pride.”
In recent years, Kline said museums have been under much more scrutiny about how they’ve obtained artifacts and artwork in their collections. While in the past many institutions could get away with gaining Nazi-looted work, it’s much less common now.
“It's very smart for the Muscarelle to want to elevate the educational level of the people on their board and their community,” Kline said.
“When you go into these museums to know many of these either artworks or artifacts can have a troubled past — and to maybe look at things not more skeptically but to really think through and question the basic assumptions that we have always had about artwork,” Krauss said.
Want to attend?
“Culture Interrupted: The Pursuit of Looted Art and Antiquities by the Nazis” is 6-7 p.m. April 8, room 120 of the William and Mary Law School, 613 S. Henry St. Registration is $5 for non-members and begins March 25. To register and view the full list of events in the series, visit muscarelle.org/events.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.