U.S. Museums Cope with Art Tainted by Nazi Looting

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More than 600,000 pieces of artwork are believed to have been looted from private European collections by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. Some of that art is in the United States. NPR's Guy Raz reports on the quandaries museums face as they investigate claims. Recently, Yale University reached a creative solution with an elderly man over a Courbet landscape valued in the millions.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More than half a million pieces of art were looted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. Most were eventually repatriated, but some slipped through the cracks and made it to this country. Since 1998, American museums have participated in a program to investigate the origin of their collections.

But as NPR's Guy Raz reports, the museums are often at odds with those who claim to have owned the art in the past.

(Soundbite of creaking floors)

GUY RAZ: The old wooden floors creak under the weight of Eric Weinman's wheelchair. In the manor like house in Washington he shares with his charmingly patrician wife, Mary, there are servants and gardeners and old wooden paneling. But what I've come to see is a painting that hangs in the Weinman's large drawing room.

Mr. ERIC WEINMAN: This is a Corbet painting, and it is called Le Grand Pont.

RAZ: Perhaps you missed that. Eric Weinman is describing a painting hanging in his house by 19th-century French realist Gustav Corbet, the first true master of realism. It's a painting worth millions.

Mr. WEINMAN: And it was extremely dear to my late mother, who had bought it at an auction in Berlin in 1935.

RAZ: Eric's mother, Josephine, was a notable art patron in Berlin before the Second World War. But when the war broke out, the Weinmans, who were Jewish, decided it was time to leave. Now by then, Eric was already in his late 20s, and the family ended up in New York. The Corbet painting ended up in a storage depot in Berlin.

Mr. WEINMAN: When the war ended, the Corbet, together with a lot of other paintings, was gone. And I had been searching for it ever since.

RAZ: Every now and then, Eric would come across an encouraging lead, but mostly they were dead ends, that is until 2001, when his old friend, Cameron LeClair(ph), wandered through the Yale University Art Gallery.

Mr. CAMERON LeCLAIR: And then to my shock, I really was absolutely overcome. I couldn't believe that hanging on this wall in the Yale Art Gallery, was this picture.

RAZ: A 60 year saga ended in New Haven, Connecticut. But another would soon begin because Eric Weinman didn't have any documentary evidence to prove the painting was his or that the Corbet was stolen from that storage depot in Berlin.

Mr. WEINMAN: Well, the university was initially convinced that I was an imposter, and they treated me like that.

RAZ: To be fair, Yale was put in a pretty uncomfortable position. The university didn't own the Corbet. It was actually on loan from an old German man named Dr. Herbert Schaefer, who like many Germans of his era, served as a minor official in Germany during the Nazi period. Schaefer says he bought the Corbet in the 1940s from an art dealer in Berlin. But an art investigator named Willie Corta(ph), hired by Eric Weinman, was skeptical. Corta was told that -

Mr. WILLIE CORTA (Art Investigator): On one sunny day, so to speak, Dr. Schaefer was strolling down the streets of Berlin and saw this Corbet in the window of a gallery.

RAZ: But Corta's research was inconclusive. He couldn't prove that Dr. Schaefer acquired the painting illegally, and it's a common dilemma for art investigators.

Mr. ERIC LEDBETTER (American Association of Museums): Prior to very recently, say the 1970s, the art market operated on handshake deals.

RAZ: That's Eric Ledbetter, with the American Association of Museums.

Mr. LEDBETTER: Art doesn't come with a title slip like an automobile or a house. There was a tradition - you might go to a dealer in New York City, and he would just say this is from a prominent European collection, and that's all you knew.

RAZ: That's no longer the case. If the provenance of a piece is questionable, chances are a museum will shy away from acquiring it. But there still are about 18,000 pieces of artwork in America with uncertain provenance.

Alex Nargis(ph) at the Virginia Museum of Arts pulls out a tall metal shelf inside the basement of the museum. This is the room where paintings are stored, including pieces of questionable provenance.

Mr. ALEX NARGIS (Virginia Museum of Arts): This rack contains two works of art that fit within the parameters that we have identified with Nazi war repatriation.

RAZ: Basically, artwork the museum acquired between 1933 and 1946. It doesn't mean the pieces were stolen by the Nazis, and in fact it's unlikely. But because they can't account for who owned them between those years, it's enough to launch an investigation. But Willy Corta, one of the most prominent art investigators in America, argues that there still isn't any accepted standard for how to determine ownership. In most cases, he says, museums simply come up with their own ground rules.

Mr. CORTA: There is no definition of what constitutes a legitimate claim short of, you know, the ideal documentation, which in most of the cases we don't have.

RAZ: And so more often than not, the cases go to court. But there are exceptions, including the case of Eric Weinman and the Corbet. To avoid a long and bitter trial, Yale, Herbert Schaefer and Eric Weinman came up with a creative solution. The Corbet would be given to Yale as a gift. Yale would then loan the painting to Eric Weinman for 10 years. At the end of that period, he'd send it back to Yale.

Eric Weinman still has five years left to gaze at Le Grand Pont, his mother's beloved Corbet now hanging up in the drawing room of his Washington home.

Guy Raz, NPR News.

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