WASHINGTON — Two Expressionist paintings didn't make their flight back to Vienna. The works by Egon Schiele on exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art have been held up in New York because heirs of Holocaust victims claim they were stolen by the Nazis.
Meanwhile, archaeologists argue that some Mayan and Malian objects in an exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts may have been looted.
These cases are challenging business as usual in the art world, which has been reluctant to ask as tough questions about the history of ownership of a work of art as it does about its authenticity.
"It seems that the art world has only just discovered that it is walking through a minefield," says historian Jonathan Petropoulos.
While museum directors and dealers say such cases threaten their ability to mount exhibits and undermine collecting of ancient art, investigators say they are forcing a long-needed change in widespread lax practices.
"The art business is the only multibillion-dollar international business that is totally unregulated. You couldn't buy a $500 used Chrysler the way you can a $500,000 painting," says Willie Korte, a leading expert in the identification and repatriation of artworks looted during World War II.
"People are required to do a title search when they buy a house or a car. It's mystifying why this hasn't become standard practice in the art world," adds Tom Hamilton, a partner with Mr. Korte in the Washington-based Trans-Art International.
But while museums and auction houses are nearing consensus on how to handle World War II disputes, there remain deep disagreements over how to resolve the issue of antiquities looting, which now rivals trafficking in drugs and illegal arms, according to INTERPOL.
In most of the antiquities cases, poor countries such as Mali and Guatemala find themselves on the opposite side from venerable museums and big-time collectors.
Lately, the small countries have had some big wins. After months of controversy, French President Jacques Chirac returned a disputed statuette to Mali on Jan. 22. The clay ram, which Malian officials said had been looted from an archaeological site in 1989, had been a gift from friends.
In recent months, US officials have also put some teeth into a 1970 UNESCO convention to crack down on illicit trade in cultural objects. Congress passed legislation in 1983 enabling the US to negotiate bilateral agreements to protect countries at high risk from looters, but the process didn't pick up momentum until last year, when agreements were signed with Canada, Peru, Guatemala, and Mali. Other talks are pending.
Some top art dealers say the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which negotiates these agreements, is overstepping its mandate, and are mounting an offensive to curb it.
Curbing bilateral agreements
"We're seeing an increasing intensity of efforts of foreign nations to protect their cultural patrimony and look for new ways to get assistance from the US government. We've also seen a willingness of some people in the bureaucracy at USIA to stretch the law to accommodate foreign interests at the expense of US interests," says James Fitzpatrick, a top lawyer for dealers.
Some New York lawmakers who have taken the lead in urging justice for victims of World War II looting are at the same time urging restraint in using import restrictions to protect loot-prone countries. Last week, Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York hosted a meeting between leading antiquities dealers and USIA officials to discuss dealers' concerns.
Dealers want to ensure that US officials are not moving to enforce the export laws of other countries or require that all antiquities sold in the US have a valid export permit - moves they say will destroy their business.
"The terms of the debate have been cast as if we're all crooks, which is too bad, because there is a wonderful public role played by people who collect art and donate it," says Frederick Schultz, president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental & Primitive Art, who attended the Feb. 5 meeting. "The archaeologists have their own agenda. What I have to do is make sure I follow the laws of the US and the state of New York. There are lots of other laws out there," he adds. Representative Schumer, who refused comment on the meeting, is sponsoring legislation to help families find stolen Nazi art.
"They're finally addressing the problem of Nazi art in a comprehensive manner," says Mr. Petropoulos, who is completing a second book on the subject. "With antiquities, awareness hasn't come that far. Museums and dealers are not yet prepared to engage and rectify this issue," he says.
Experts say that as much as a fifth of the world's Western art changed hands during World War II, and some of it is still working its way through commercial markets or is already in museum collections.
Recent declassification of World War II documents, along with new archives and stolen-art databases have made it easier for museums and families of victims to track ownership of disputed or lost works. The availability of new archives has pushed some museums to investigate more deeply the provenance of their collections. Hector Feliciano's "The Lost Museum," published in French in 1995, spurred France's national museums to put some 2,000 looted artworks recovered after World War II on display and later on line, to encourage rightful owners to come forward. Many US museums are now quietly investigating questionable works in their collections.
"What's not showing up in the press is the fact that gaps in provenance [history of ownership] are more common than not," says Dawn Griffin, of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which has stepped up research on its collections. "It's a very complex puzzle, and the pieces are often all over the world. You end up faxing all over the world trying to find one piece, and you may meet a dead end."
Negotiation not litigation
The art world doesn't like bad headlines. But it especially doesn't like litigation, and the Schiele seizures are a lesson in how not to resolve such disputes, museum officials say.
Ironically, the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in the thick of this dispute, Ronald Lauder, also heads the World Jewish Congress's new Commission for Art Recovery, which aims to help the families of Holocaust victims. Hundreds of families could step forward with claims on museums and collectors, and such claims need to be negotiated, not litigated, Mr. Lauder says.
Last week, the Association of Art Museum Directors set up a task force to develop guiding principles to help preempt such high-voltage World War II cases. The task force, which reports in June, will consider how to compensate innocent buyers as well as ways to develop a mediation process outside of the courts.
New York's congressional delegation is also tackling the issue. This week, the Senate Banking Committee will hold hearings on World War II art in museums. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, who chairs the committee, took the lead in pressing Swiss banks to made amends to Holocaust victims. Democratic Reps. Charles Schumer and Nita Lowey, who had urged US Customs to block the exit of the disputed Schiele paintings, are sponsoring a bill to require a search of all federal holdings for looted World War II art as well as information networks to help families find stolen art.
The issue of stolen antiquities has yet to arouse the same level of public sympathy and support. It's also been tougher to use online technologies to halt the plunder of antiquities.
The standard theft in art-rich regions in Guatemala, Cambodia, or the Niger River Valley involves looters armed with pickaxes or long metal spikes breaking into a tomb. No stolen report is filed, because the looted objects have never been classified. The losers have no faces, but the loss is none the less acute.
An ancient object taken from its context loses most of its meaning, archaeologists say. And governments argue that their nations are losing their cultural patrimony, with the complicity of museums, auction houses, and art dealers in New York and London.
"A pot is a tiny piece of evidence in a very large cultural picture, and without the context, the meaning is lost," says Boston University archaeologist Clemency Coggins.
"There are tremendous inducements [to looting] offered by the international art market," she adds. Experts estimate that 80 percent of antiquities in some regions of Mali and Guatemala have been looted.
Even though the country of origin may have strong laws against the export of its antiquities, until recently, these laws have had no standing in US courts. Once declared at US Customs, most antiquities can legally be sold in an auction house or to a dealer.
But US courts are beginning to take a harder look. "In the past, American defendants have argued that something taken out of the ground is not stolen; that antiquities aren't stolen unless they are taken from a museum. Lately the courts have been rejecting these arguments," says Thomas Kline, a leading lawyer in art recovery.
Protecting cultural sites
The 1983 US legislation has also had an impact. "Until recently, the risks of dealing in undocumented antiquities have been low, and the payoffs high. One of the important consequences of this legislation is that it is making the costs of dealing with undocumented artifacts unacceptably high," says Susan McIntosh, an anthropologist at Rice University in Houston and a member of the 11-member Cultural Property Advisory Committee that helps negotiates the bilateral agreements. "The public doesn't realized how ravaged some of these prized areas are. Some sites in Peru look like lunar landscapes after encountering an asteroid belt. They are destroyed before we can map them, inventory them, or learn anything about the culture," she adds.
Archaeologists and officials from loot-prone regions applaud the committee's work. "Ten or 15 years ago, people in Mali just weren't aware of the need to protect our cultural patrimony. Even if this new agreement hasn't stopped looting completely, it has put a brake on illegal exports," says Salia Mal, assistant director of the National Museum of Mali.
"We're not saying that all art from Mali has to come back here. But these objects are an important testimony to the cultural richness of our past," he says. "We have a saying, 'If you want to know where you are going tomorrow, you need to understand where you have been.' "