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When the Ackland Art Museum held a ceremony in January to give a painting to the heirs of a Jewish lawyer, Armand Isaac Dorville, whose collection had been seized and auctioned off in Nazi-occupied France, it was a meaningful event for everyone involved.

The event returned one Thomas Couture painting to its rightful owners after 80 years, 52 of which were at the museum, but it was just one small part in the escalating struggles museums across the U.S. and Europe are facing in trying to make sure art with a checkered past is in the right hands.

Once the Ackland was contacted by the lawyers representing the heirs, it went through a lengthy process of examination, in which the painting's auction records were inspected by a conservator and findings were sent to Ackland's national advisory board, Ackland curator Dana Cowen said. 

Cowen said it was a “no brainer” that it should be given to the rightful heirs once all of the evidence of the family's legal claim was airtight. Still, it took 19 months between the heirs’ lawyers contacting the Ackland and the ceremony at which the painting was officially handed over.

“That seems not inappropriate for the care we should take, because we hold these works in trust, as it were, for the people of North Carolina,” Peter Nisbet, the Ackland’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, said. "And we shouldn't take the act of taking something away from that trust at all lightly."

And while 19 months might sound like a long time, that’s actually a relatively quick turnaround according to Brett Ashley Kaplan, a professor at the University of Illinois and researcher of Holocaust art.

Some pieces looted during the Holocaust have been tied up in legal disputes for years or even decades before being returned to heirs. For example, seven works by the painter Egon Schiele were returned to heirs of an Austrian collector in September, after a case was first filed in the dispute in 1998. Two more of Schiele’s works were returned in January, and the Art Institute of Chicago continues to defend its legal title to a tenth.

The culture in the art world has shifted in recent decades as museums have been adhering to higher standards for provenance research and resistance to returning looted items has eased, Kaplan said. As the New York Times put it in 2022, “for U.S. museums with looted art, the Indiana Jones era is over.”

Another factor in the increased number of restitutions, Cowen said, is that the digitization of museum collections and archives has made provenance research and the locating of looted objects much easier than it was in a pre-internet era.

“Although there are great records from Germany and France of paintings that were looted at the time, some of those aren't accessible to researchers or they hadn’t been. I would say, in the last 20 or 30 years, more and more has been able to be researched because more and more museums have their collections online,” she said.

Digitization of the museum’s collection also helped in identifying the only other recent case of art being returned from the Ackland, Nisbet said. In 2018, it returned a statue to the Indian government that it had accepted as a donation, not knowing it had been looted decades earlier from a Buddhist temple.

Kaplan said she expects disputes over art looted during the Holocaust to continue for quite some time, partially because there are descendants who have not been able to find their ancestors’ art. The vast movement of pieces throughout Europe during World War II has made tracing the rightful ownership difficult. 

“It’s very hard to get your head around because there are so many different countries and moving parts. You’ve got a da Vinci on a train here and a Caravaggio in a salt mine over here. I mean, it's just really incredible to try to imagine all of that,” Kaplan said.

While deep research and occasional legal disputes over art looted in Nazi Europe continue, there is also the issue of art in Western museums taken illegally from countries when they were colonized.

Among the most prominent objects in this fight are the Benin Bronzes, several thousand plaques and statues that were looted from a royal palace in modern Nigeria in 1897. The Smithsonian and German museums have started sending many Benin Bronzes in their collections to the Nigerian government, while other museums and collectors argue against it.

The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh holds five Benin Bronzes.

“To give back an object that was looted completes a circle, whereas correcting the vast trauma perpetrated by white colonizers against enslaved peoples, that feels like a much bigger project. But if you can say, ‘well, here's this object that we stole, here it is back’ that sort of has a sense of closure,” Kaplan said.


@dthlifestyle |

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