New York museums now required to release Nazi-looted artwork

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Written by Zoe Sottile, CNN

New York museums will now be required to disclose which works of art were stolen in Nazi-era Europe, thanks to new legislation signed last week by Governor Kathy Hochul.
The law is part of a set of laws designed to honor and support Holocaust survivors, according to a press release from the New York Department of Financial Services.

The Nazis stole and confiscated hundreds of thousands of works of art during World War II, mostly from Jewish communities. The new law requires museums to “prominently place a sign or other signage” on works of art.

“More than 600,000 paintings were stolen from the Jewish people during World War II, enriching the Nazi regime while eradicating Jewish culture,” said Jack Kliger, CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, in a statement shared with CNN.

“For years, many of these paintings have been exhibited in institutions, but without any acknowledgment of their origin,” he said. “This legislation remedies that and allows New York institutions to honor those whose lives have been lost and whose personal property has been stolen for profit.”

Works of art stolen by the Nazis continue to be the subject of contentious public debates over their ownership.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court heard arguments over a Jewish family’s right to a French impressionist painting, confiscated by the Nazis in 1939 before eventually ending up in a public museum in Spain. In 2019, the FBI recovered a painting from the Arkell Museum in New York because it had been stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family in 1933.

Additionally, several museums have taken steps to examine the dark history of some of their artifacts in recent years.

In 2000, the Museum of Modern Art launched the Provenance Research Project to identify stolen works of art. The museum houses around 800 paintings which “were or could have been in mainland Europe during the Nazi era”. according to a statementalthough the museum claims most were acquired directly from artists or have ownership records showing they were not stolen by the Nazis.
And the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York held restitution ceremonies to celebrate the return of works of art stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners.

In addition to new requirements for museums, the legislation also includes measures to improve Holocaust education in New York schools and the publication of a list of financial institutions that waive fees for Holocaust reparations. ‘Holocaust.

Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, a nonprofit that helps provide compensation and aid to Holocaust survivors, told CNN the three laws are part of a much-needed effort to improve Holocaust education in New York. A survey of Holocaust awareness among Millennials and Gen Xers published by the organization in 2020 revealed that New York ranked 41st out of 50 states.

The conference is “very pleased” with the legislation, says Schneider.

“It is very important that there is a series of laws that help survivors and also promote education around their experiences,” he said.

For Schneider, the education bill, which will require an audit to determine whether New York schools are meeting state mandates for Holocaust education, and the museum bill are part of the same project to improve New Yorkers’ awareness of the impact of the Holocaust.

“We learn history by looking at works of art,” he said. “The story of what happened to this piece is part of it. It’s an opportunity to open up to another audience, another perspective, on the history of the Shoah.”

“Not only was [the Holocaust] the greatest and most sophisticated industrial genocide of the Jewish people, it was also the greatest theft in the history of the world,” Schneider said. The scale of the theft of “property, art, insurance policies, bank accounts, all types of goods, and Jewish cultural objects, is staggering.”

He notes that the bill will also help plaintiffs seeking the return of artwork stolen from their families by the Nazis.

“It continues to put pressure on museums to do research, to establish the chain of ownership,” he said.

While the legislation represents a step forward for museums, Schneider says many of the artworks stolen by the Nazis are in private hands, a sort of “black hole” that often escapes regulation.

“The commonality of these three pieces of legislation is that they highlight important aspects of ongoing issues for survivor support and Holocaust education,” Schneider said. “It’s nothing new for New York State to have Holocaust education, but it puts pressure on school districts to support their teachers and find out what’s wrong. It’s not new, the idea that museums should do provenance research, but it puts extra pressure on museums and says it’s important, keep doing it, we haven’t forgotten.”

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