In the last six months there has been a notable change in the art world. It has nothing to do with exhibitions or acquisitions, but rather with the rhetoric surrounding potential claims for art plundered during World War II that later found its way, by various routes through dealers and collectors, into American museums.
Eager to avoid the kind of outcry that enveloped Swiss banks that dragged their feet before compensating Jews who lost assets during the war, museums are no longer denying that there might be problems in their galleries. They are now pledging to resolve claims quickly, if they arise, using mediation if necessary. And they are reviewing their collections to identify artworks tainted by Nazi looting.
But righting the wrongs of history is never easy. And as a closely watched case in Seattle is demonstrating, returning a looted painting or providing compensation for its loss can be tricky and drawn out -- far more so than the return of bank accounts, gold or insurance payments lost or stolen during the war.
With those assets, large-scale settlements from big companies are possible. With art, the cases are individual. No one knows how many potential cases involve American museums. If the handful that have occurred are any indication, they often pop up unexpectedly when a family, sometimes after years of looking, locates a lost work in a catalogue or exhibition.
Further complicating matters, the party or parties who stole the artwork half a century ago and who profited from trading it are often long gone, while the current owner of a stolen painting, be it a museum or an individual, probably had nothing to do with the theft. The idea of a "universal solution" involving a pool of money that would be used to pay claimants, like the one that Swiss banks recently agreed to establish, seems attractive theoretically. But it runs into problems because there is no comparable single source of money for an art fund.
The Seattle case involves the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, a Jewish art dealer who fled Paris for New York to escape the Nazi invasion, leaving his collection in a bank vault. Last fall his heirs found "Odalisque," a Matisse painting that had been taken from him by the Nazis, in the Seattle Art Museum, which had been given the work a few years ago.
On July 31, after negotiations to recover the painting failed, the Rosenbergs took the museum to court. In refusing to give back the picture, the museum hinted that it wanted to force a comprehensive solution involving the Manhattan dealer, Knoedler & Company, which brought "Odalisque" to the United States. So, late last month, the museum sued Knoedler, which had bought the painting in 1954 from a Paris dealer, now defunct, and sold it a few months later to Virginia and Prentice Bloedel, both now dead, who donated it to the museum.
The museum says that Knoedler committed fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of warranty of title when it sold the work to the Bloedels. If the museum has to give up the painting, it wants compensation for its market value, which may be $2 million or more, even though it did not pay for it.
Knoedler, which has not yet responded formally, said through its lawyer that it had nothing to do with the museum dispute because its dealings were all with the Bloedels, not the museum. "I don't know of any case where a museum has gone to someone who never dealt with them and tried to extract money from them," said Lewis B. Clayton of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in Manhattan. "The only people who could press a claim are the Bloedels."
The museum, said its lawyer, John A. Reed of Davis Wright & Tremaine in Seattle, has standing in the suit as the Bloedels' successor.
The wrangling is striking because the Rosenberg case is relatively straightforward and well documented. Among the many papers supporting the Rosenberg claim are two exhibition catalogues from 1937 and 1938 recording the painting as the property of Paul Rosenberg and an official catalogue of looted art published by the French Government in 1947 listing him as the owner. The painting's whereabouts between 1941 and 1954 are unknown, but Rosenberg and his family searched constantly for "Odalisque" and the many other paintings looted from his collection.
Facing those facts, which the museum says are supported by its own research into the painting's provenance, the museum does not deny the Rosenbergs' claim. "More likely than not, the Rosenbergs have superior title," Mr. Reed said. But the museum refuses to return the painting until it completes its provenance research and, more important, presses its claim against Knoedler.
The museum's research does suggest potential problems for Knoedler. For example, its suit against the dealer asserts that a Knoedler employee told Mrs. Bloedel in 1954 that Matisse, not Rosenberg, owned the paintings for the 1937 and '38 exhibitions even though Knoedler had the exhibition catalogues in its possession at the time.
The museum said it wanted a court to determine the painting's ownership because it felt that returning the painting voluntarily might weaken its case against Knoedler. Without a court ruling, Mr. Reed said, "Knoedler might look at the same information we have and say you made a mistake when you gave it back voluntarily."
In one way, at least, the Seattle museum is fortunate: it has a gallery to sue. Knoedler celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1996, although it is no longer a family business. (Armand Hammer, the late financier, bought the company in 1971 and it is now controlled by his foundation).
"Not a heck of a lot of galleries are left that did business" shortly after the war, particularly in European art, said Richard Gray, the president of the Art Dealers Association of America. The dealers' organization, whose members are eager to avoid debilitating legal costs, recently endorsed a policy urging third-party mediation of wartime art disputes, following the same recommendation issued in June by the Association of Art Museum Directors.
But no one has any idea of how to resolve a case fairly when the culpable party is no longer in business or alive, and when making things right for one victim creates another.
That is why the idea of establishing a fund to meet such claims is being floated by a few art experts and Jewish organizations. Lacking a credible source of money, however, it is an orphan idea. When the idea of levying a tax on dealers and auction houses, or their transactions, has come up at symposiums and conferences, it has not won resounding support from the art trade, with few people in the business feeling a responsibility for what happened in the war.
For the moment, the most viable suggestion seems to be voluntary contributions. "It might be in the interest of the art community -- auction houses, dealers, museums -- to contribute to the solution," said Ori Soltes, who recently stepped down as director of the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington. They could justify "communal reasons" for their participation, he argues, perhaps the way industry groups sometimes pay into a fund to settle class-action claims.