Jonathan Lopez's Reviews > Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice

Lost Lives, Lost Art by Melissa Müller
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Oct 24, 2010

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bookshelves: art, art-history
Read in January, 2011

In separating wealthy Jews from their art collections, the Nazi regime was nothing if not resourceful. Decrees of confiscation, forced sales, sham auctions, “taxes” demanded in return for exit visas--such formalities generated mountains of paperwork and lent an air of legality to Holocaust plunder.

As a result, many artworks stolen 70 years ago remain subject to competing claims and counter-claims today. Sovereign governments to whom looted items were repatriated by Allied recovery teams in the postwar period have often been slow to return valuable masterpieces to descendants of the original owners. And thorny legal issues arise when disputed objects come into the possession of third parties who wish to establish clear title.

The 15 cases detailed in Lost Lives, Lost Art are among the most contentious in the field of Holocaust art restitution. All have been subject to extensive litigation, and some proceedings remain active. Melissa Müller, a historian of the Holocaust, and Monika Tatzkow, an authority on art restitution, provide a spirited history of the people and collections behind these cases. They offer a clear and unequivocal rationale for why hundreds of disputed objects should be returned to specific individuals, forcefully arguing the plaintiffs’ brief in the court of public opinion. As such, this book is a powerful and persuasive piece of advocacy journalism.

But serious scholars may well deem it a missed opportunity. Vast amounts of useful and interesting information can be found here, but only very broad sources are cited--“Central Bavarian State Archive, Munich,” or “City Archive, Amsterdam.” Few references tie any facts mentioned in the text to the particular archival documents or other source materials from which they derive. In consequence, the book is of negligible value as a guide for further research.

The authors are at their best dealing with cases in which the main legal issues are no longer in dispute, such as the Goudstikker matter, in which the heirs of Amsterdam art dealer Jacques Goudstikker negotiated the return of 200 pictures from the Dutch government in 2005--some 65 years after Hermann Goering’s agents unlawfully acquired them. The Goudstikker section is particularly valuable because it is co-written by the Dutch journalist Pieter den Hollander, author of De zaak Goudstikker (1998), the influential, but never translated, Dutch-language book that set into motion the family’s successful restitution claim.

With its measured tone, thoughtful arguments, and impeccably documented research, Den Hollander’s book could have provided a worthy model for the present volume. Unfortunately Müller and Tatzkow too often oversimplify the weighty questions of law and jurisprudence that complicate many restitution cases while dwelling on personalities and side issues. The book is handsomely produced with full-color reproductions of artworks and numerous historical photographs, but the lavish design aesthetic seems too heavily influenced by high-end fashion magazines and is wildly at odds with the sober subject matter under discussion.
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message 2: by Dvora (new)

Dvora Thanks Jonathan for a knowledgeable and thoughtful review (as usual) on what looks to be an interesting (if flawed) book.

Jonathan Lopez Dvora wrote: "Thanks Jonathan for a knowledgeable and thoughtful review (as usual) on what looks to be an interesting (if flawed) book."

It's worth a look Dvora, especially if you're already interested in the subject. But if you haven't read Lynn Nicholas's "The Rape of Europa" yet, I'd recommend that one over this title, I think.

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