A Curator of Lost Artwork and Found Memories

The New York Times, 25 May 2002
Warren Hoge

THE paintings welcomed friends and relatives to front hall parlors, they brought luminous outdoor scenes into breakfast pantries on gray Middle European mornings, they occupied favored spaces in living rooms once full of bountiful living.

With the coming of the Nazis, they disappeared, carrying with them the histories of homes and communities and the recollections of parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters wiped out in the Holocaust.

Anne Webber is a British filmmaker who heads the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, and she works to reanimate these memories of lives the Nazis hoped to expunge. She does it by reuniting people with enduring reminders of lost loved ones -- family artworks.

''I think the important thing about art, which can get ignored when people talk about it, is its huge emotional and symbolic value for the families from which it was taken,'' she said. ''Sometimes when I say we have recovered a picture, I get asked, 'What's it worth? What's it worth?' -- meaning what would it sell for. 'Well, you'll have to talk to the family,' I say. 'They'll tell you what it means to them.' ''

Ms. Webber hears the stirring and poignant evidence of that many times a day in the central London town house piled high with files where she and a team of art historians, investigators and translators have taken on the task of matching looted paintings, books, manuscripts, sculptures and Judaica with original owners.

The search field is vast, the clues scant. Many provenances were deliberately changed to disguise the whereabouts of paintings during the critical 1933-1945 period, when the Nazis ruled first Germany, and then much of Europe. Others became muddled more out of carelessness than guile as possessions passed into new hands through innocent transactions.

The queries come from as far away as Australia and as close as around the corner. One caller sent a sepia photograph of his family seated in front of a long-sought canvas. Another recalled one word of a book title from a looted rabbinical library. A third remembered a picture of a field full of poppies that he as a child of 13 had seen his father buy from a local artist in Germany. He said that he had lost every member of his family in the camps and that viewing that picture again could help bring them back to him.

FEAR can get mixed in with the joy when Ms. Webber reports news of a find. ''It is not like losing something in a burglary,'' she said. ''The circumstances in which these things were lost were the most terrible imaginable. So you never know what terrors or feelings are going to be aroused when you contact a family that has survived the Holocaust.''

There was a man in his 70s, one of only two survivors from an Austrian family of 11, who described a picture that he longed to locate, of a woman in a blue dress. ''It turned out that it was a painting of his murdered mother, so you can imagine what the meaning of that picture was for him,'' Ms. Webber said. ''Then he got in touch with us a couple of weeks later and said, 'Actually, I have been having sleepless nights since I came to see you. I don't think I can deal with all the pain of this, and I don't want you to look for the picture anymore.' ''

Though searches went on, largely fruitlessly, for decades, it was in the 1990s that the frequent institutional explanation that a missing work ''must be behind the Iron Curtain'' no longer prevailed. It suddenly became clear that the objects of families' quests had entered the international art market and could probably be found in museums, galleries, private collections or auction houses.
The scale of the wartime plundering was huge. ''I spoke not long ago to one of the Americans who had been part of the team that went around at the end of the war collecting looted works of art,'' Ms. Webber said. ''He said it really came home to him when they arrived at this castle and there were towels with the family's initials on them. They had even taken the household linen.''

The Allies delivered the artworks back to their countries of origin, but much of the art never got to its rightful owners. Attempts to seek restitution ran into problems in countries like Germany, where a statute of limitations was deemed to have run out in 1948, or Britain, where six years of ownership was enough to constitute ''good title.''

THE Commission was created in 1999, representing the European Council of Jewish Communities and the Conference of European Rabbis, and it is funded entirely by donations. It is in the final stages of setting up a central registry of information at www.lootedart.com that should speed future recoveries.

Ms. Webber has a deep aversion to talking about herself, her life and even how old she is. ''Just say that I've been a Londoner all my adult life,'' she said. A documentary maker for the music and arts department of the BBC for 10 years, she became involved in her current work after making a film for Britain's Channel 4 in 1998 called ''Making a Killing.''

The film was about a Dutch family named Gutmann -- the name was changed to Goodman in Britain -- and their hunt for their looted collection, including a Degas landscape that was traced to a collector in Chicago. When the owner saw the amount of evidence that Ms. Webber had uncovered to back the family's claim, he appreciated the strength of a potential legal case and agreed to settle.

Months later, Ms. Webber became co-chairwoman of the Commission, and last month the Goodman family received 233 of its looted artworks from the Netherlands under an agreement the Commission negotiated. Like the Dutch, other European governments are becoming sensitized to the issue and dropping past objections. In 2000, Britain established a panel of its own to help resolve claims from the Nazi era.

Ms. Webber is Jewish herself, but that fact only comes up late in the conversation and in answer to a persistent question. ''I don't think that's essential,'' she said. ''I was fortunate enough not to suffer because my family had been in this country for many years.''

She recalled as a child going to visit one set of friends who were Jewish refugees who had lost all their relatives and all their possessions. She found herself focusing on a picture with waves of light that hung on their wall. ''No one talked about their loss or about that painting,'' she said. ''But even as a 9-year-old, I knew instinctively that it was all that remained of the murdered parents.''

Asked to describe her own feelings about the work she does, Ms. Webber instead pulled a letter from a folder on her desk and read it out loud. It was from a man thanking her for finding a religious book looted from a family library in a Nazi raid in the 1930s.
''A beautiful and meaningful letter that gives an indication of what it means to people,'' she said. ''That is what this is about.''

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