When Israel Museum director James Snyder heard two weeks ago that the government-established Holocaust restitution organization Hashava had publicly pointed a finger at his museum and several others in Israel for possessing Nazi-looted art, he was, in his words, “a little puzzled.”

The museum had inherited and has been the custodian of “stuff” received in the 1950s, including a “balagan of material” received from the Bezalel museum, said Snyder, referring to the precursor of the Israel Museum, as well as the more valuable and well-known pieces whose provenance was established years earlier. But it did not have such works illegally adorning its wall, and it had long been engaged in serious efforts to enable restitution.

“I see [Holocaust art restitution] as one of the great defining characteristics of the museum, growing out of the aftermath of the geopolitical trauma that overtook the world with World War Two,” he said. “[Former Jerusalem mayor Teddy] Kollek’s initiative to build this encyclopedic museum was part of that, and in a way trying to rectify the injustice done by that history.”

Much of what the museum holds in its custody is not of great historical or economic value, Snyder noted. He was referring to more than 1,000 pieces of Holocaust-era art, much of it Judaica, with unknown provenance and from communities that don’t exist any longer.

Just some of the Judaica displayed at the Israel Museum (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Just some of the Judaica displayed at the Israel Museum (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

“Maybe ten or twenty items are important,” he said. “The rest have deep meaning, sentimentally and emotionally.”

Snyder isn’t the only Israeli museum head who has been issuing explanations, and expressing some surprise, in the wake of the Hashava accusations. There were similar reactions at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Ein Harod and the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum.

“They gave the good stuff to the Israel Museum,” said Dvora Liss, the curator of Judaica at the Museum of Art at Kibbutz Ein Harod. “We were around at the time, but we didn’t get the great stuff. When they gave it to us, they were just saving Judaica.” Still, said Liss, every item in the kibbutz museum has a number, and is listed in the National Library. What’s missing is the money for the museum to investigate its archives and find out where all the pieces are from, as well as organizing the paperwork that does exist.

One of the rooms displaying the Ein Harod Judaica collection (Courtesy Ein Harod)

One of the rooms displaying the Ein Harod Judaica collection (Courtesy Ein Harod)

Over at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, the following response was emailed to the Times of Israel: “To our great regret, the news item that was published in the Israel press was wrong and misleading. The Ghetto Fighters’ House, to the best of our knowledge, does not hold Jewish property that was looted by the Nazis. The GFH Art Collection is dedicated to works that document the events of the Holocaust, that were made during the Holocaust and directly after. It does not include Jewish property that was looted by the Nazis.”

The collective indignation at the Hashava announcement wasn’t surprising. After all, the organization appeared to accuse the museums named of not making enough of an effort to identify and research the provenance of the Holocaust-era art in their possession.

Hashava had charged that “the hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and items of Judaica confiscated from European Jews by the Nazis may be illegally adorning the walls of Israel’s top museums.” It also said it would team up with the Israeli museums thought to be in possession of Nazi-looted art, in order to track down the rightful heirs.

The real challenge, now, appears to lie somewhere between the museums’ response and what Hashava was trying to point out. And the error was in the tone and wording of the announcement, admitted Elinor Kroitoru, the lawyer who heads that Assets Location and Heir Search Division at Hashava.

This 1915 townscape by Austrian painter Egon Schiele was well published and often loaned but with no known owners, suggesting, said Snyder, a whole second narrative to the painting itself (Courtesy Israel Museum)

This 1915 townscape by Austrian painter Egon Schiele was well published and often loaned but with no known owners, suggesting, said Snyder, a whole second narrative to the painting itself (Courtesy Israel Museum)

“We put a lot of time into the announcement in order to not do what ended up happening,” she said.

Hashava, said Kroitoru, sees itself on the same side as the museums, but it does want to help the museums identify the Holocaust-era property they have in their possession.

“We want to create a joint effort,” she said. “All the museums have been doing work to make sure that nothing they have belongs to survivors. I want to be able to say that we’ve looked, checked and our museums are clean or aren’t and are dealing with it. Let us make it happen for you.”

Hashava was founded in 2006 by a Knesset law that tasked it with locating assets and finding the heirs that owned them. Unclaimed funds are used by the organization for the welfare of Holocaust survivors living in Israel and for Holocaust commemoration through education.

“We have the law to deal with property and the strength, so let us move it forward to get you the budgets for provenance,” she said.

Max Liebermann's Garden of Wannsee (1923), restituted by the Israel Museum (Courtesy Israel Museum)

Max Liebermann’s Garden of Wannsee (1923), restituted by the Israel Museum (Courtesy Israel Museum)

The Israel Museum, said Kroitoru, has done good work but the relevant items in its collection are from the JRSO — the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization — and not all items have yet been fully identified. Ein Harod, she added, may have identified its Holocaust-era pieces, but has never made their provenance work public. The rest of the known collections and gifts to other museums have never been fully checked, and that could be because of lack of funds or sufficient staff. Hashava wants to make that happen now.

According to Snyder, what has brought the whole issue of looted art to the fore again is the $1.4 billion cache of artistic works discovered in Munich in 2012 and made public this fall. Two Israeli art experts will sit on the Schwabinger Kunstfund, the task force dealing with the Munich art trove. One is Yehudit Shendar, deputy director and senior art curator at Yad Vashem’s museums division, and the other is Shlomit Steinberg, the Hans Dichand curator of European art at the Israel Museum, both of whom were accepted as members of the prestigious task force of art restitution experts.

“When you discover a horde like that, you don’t rush in and tell everyone and immediately publish the contents, because then there would be real chaos. And you don’t know what you have — real works, fake works, works legitimately owned by a family. You have to characterize what you hold,” said Snyder. “I say that because this museum, since its birth, has been involved in this as custodians, and in restitutions.”

“We’ve probably some 20 restitutions of that caliber, making sure our approach was understanding complex cases,” he added. “We’re a whole casebook on restitution.”

According to Hashava, it’s about the restitution process as well as the ability to dig a little deeper. The organization wants to press the government for budgets to help the museums do the necessary research, and the Ministry of Culture has already asked the museums to figure out what kind of budgets and staffs they would need to undertake this kind of project. They have, said Kroitoru, until the end of January to give an answer. Once the project can move forward, they’ll be requesting budgets from the Finance Ministry. Hashava plans on convening a conference in June with workshop training on provenance restitution for Holocaust-era art.

“We want to give [the museums] the tools,” said Kroitoru. “The museums don’t have the money or the tools and they’re scared to have works taken out of collections. But the State of Israel can’t ask the world to do this and not do it themselves. It doesn’t look good. It would be embarrassing if an inheritor could come along and say, ‘this is mine.’ This process will be good for the museums; they’ll be on better ground.”