Museums in New York will now be required to disclose which artworks were stolen in Europe during the Nazi era, thanks to new legislation signed last week by Governor Kathy Hochul.
The law forms part of a package of legislation designed to honor and support Holocaust survivors, according to a news release from the New York Department of Financial Services.
Nazis stole and confiscated hundreds of thousands of works of art during World War II, mostly from Jewish communities. The new law mandates that museums “prominently place a placard or other signage” on the artworks.
“More than 600,000 paintings were pilfered from Jewish people during World War II, enriching the Nazi regime while eliminating Jewish culture,” said Jack Kliger, CEO at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, in a statement shared with CNN.
“For years, many of these paintings have been on display at institutions, yet without any acknowledgment of their origin,” he said. “This legislation remedies that and allows institutions in New York to honor those whose lives were lost and whose personal possessions were stolen for profit.”
Artworks stolen by Nazis continue to face contentious public debates over their ownership.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court heard arguments over a Jewish family’s right to a French impressionist painting, confiscated by Nazis in 1939 before eventually ending up in a public museum in Spain. In 2019, the FBI recovered a painting from the Arkell Museum in New York because it was stolen by Nazis from a Jewish family in 1933.
Additionally, several museums have taken steps to examine the dark history of some of their objects in the past years.
In 2000, the Museum of Modern Art launched the Provenance Research Project to identify stolen artworks. The museum is home to around 800 paintings that “were or could have been in Continental Europe during the Nazi era,” according to a statement, although the museum says most were either acquired directly from artists or otherwise have ownership records showing they were not stolen by Nazis.
And New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage has held restitution ceremonies to celebrate the return of Nazi-stolen artworks to their rightful owners.
In addition to the new requirements for museums, the legislation also includes measures for improving Holocaust education in New York schools and the publication of a list of financial institutions that waive fees for Holocaust reparations.
Greg Schneider, executive vice president at the Claims Conference, a nonprofit which helps provide compensation and aid for Holocaust survivors, tells CNN that the three laws are part of a much-needed effort to improve New York’s Holocaust education. A survey of Holocaust awareness among millennials and Gen X published by the organization in 2020 found that New York ranked 41st out of 50 states.
The conference is “very pleased” with the legislation, Schneider says.
“It’s very important that there is a series of legislation that help survivors and also promote education around their experiences,” he said.
For Schneider, the education bill, which will require an audit to determine whether New York schools are meeting the state’s mandates for Holocaust education, and the museums bill are part of the same project to improve New Yorkers’ awareness about the impact of the Holocaust.
“We learn history from looking at artwork,” he said. “The history of what happened to this piece is part of it. It’s an opportunity to open up to another audience, another perspective, on the history of the Holocaust.”
“Not only was [the Holocaust] the largest, most sophisticated industrial genocide of Jewish people, it was also the greatest theft in history of the world,” said Schneider. The scale of the theft of “property, of art, insurance policy, bank accounts, all types of possessions, and Jewish cultural objects, is mind-boggling.”
He notes that the bill will also help claimants seeking the return of artworks stolen from their families by Nazis.
“It continues to put pressure on museums to do the research, to establish the chain of ownership,” he said.
While the legislation represents a step forward for museums, Schneider says that many pieces of art stolen by Nazis are in private hands, a kind of “black hole” that often evades regulation.
“The commonality of these three pieces of legislation is that they shed light on important aspects of ongoing issues for the support of survivors and the education about the Holocaust,” Schneider said. “It’s not new for New York state to have Holocaust education, but this puts pressure on school districts to support their teachers, and figure out what’s going wrong. It’s not new, the idea that museums should do provenance research, but it puts additional pressure on museums and says this is important, continue to do this, we haven’t forgotten.”