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Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden Launches Major Project Researching Provenance

DRESDEN.-Ten years after the Washington Conference of 1998, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden is launching a major project researching the provenance of its entire holdings with the International Scientific Conference on the Restitution of Artworks on 2 October in Dresden.

The International Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets was held in Washington D.C. in late 1998. It led to the publication of the “Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art”. However, ten years on, German museums are still nowhere near completion of an exhaustive search of their holdings for any Jewish-owned property that was not lawfully acquired.

It is over 50 years since the return of the greater part of the art treasures that had been taken to the Soviet Union from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and other East German museums after the Second World War. Even now, however, many former holdings of Dresden and other museums in Eastern Germany are still missing. Likewise, the successor states of the Soviet Union, and other countries among Germany’s eastern neighbours, are still left to lament the wartime loss of many works of art – a problem rather widely ignored. The opposing legal positions in this “looted-art problem” have become entrenched, and there is no sign of a breakthrough on the political front.

The two events in focus at this time are not directly related. And the context of the theft of Jewish-owned artworks by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 makes it impossible to speak of any kind of equivalence or to compare losses. However, the unifying factor warranting an integrated scholarly approach to the two topics and their ramifications is that both involve the transfer of artworks consequent on the political catastrophes and mass displacements of the 20th century, along with the resulting problems of restitution. It is important to identify what is common to the two topics and in what ways they differ – but the overriding priority must be to point to possible ways forward.

With these aims in view, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden has arranged for a conference of leading experts in the relevant fields to be held on 2 October under the title of “Kunst-Transfer. Thesen und Visionen zur Restitution von Kunstwerken” (Art Transfers. Theses and Visions relating to the Restitution of Works of Art). The conference will set out to define the present position both in terms of current provenance research and the political climate, paying special attention to how we can tackle the problem over the coming years. The conference will be held as part of the 47. Deutscher Historikertag 2008 (47th Congress of German Historians, 2008), and will bring together renowned experts from academia, museums and politics – among them Charles A. Goldstein of the Commission for Art Recovery in New York, and Georg Heuberger, the founding Director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt and the Jewish Claims Conference Representative in Germany. Other conference speakers and the topics of their presentations are listed in the attached document.

While funding of research projects over the last few years by a number of foundations (among them the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung and the J. Paul Getty Foundation) has enabled the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden to establish a professional staff team dedicated to researching the history of the Museumsverbund (Association of Museums), which spent part of its time on provenance research, it has nevertheless generally remained impossible – given the overall Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden holdings of around 1,200,000 artworks – to get beyond merely researching isolated cases in direct response to lodged claims and external inquiries.

The spring of 2008 at last brought a turning point, in the shape of a project unparalleled not only in Germany, but internationally. Thanks to the active commitment of Dr. Eva-Maria Stange, the Saxony’s Minister for Science and Art, the Saxon state government approved a grant of €15 million over a total period of ten years for the establishment of a database where every single work of art owned by the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden be digitally recorded, inventoried against the current actual holdings, and – importantly – have its provenance researched. The entire mass of accessible source material will be reviewed, evaluated, and stored in the database, to be retrievable under multiple criteria. The name chosen for the database is “Daphne” – referring to an artwork held in Dresden’s Grünes Gewölbe, portraying the Greek nymph who was turned into a beautiful tree. At some time in the medium term, “Daphne” will also be made available to users outside the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in an online version. At that stage, it will also be possible for it to network with other databases, e.g. at the Getty Research Institute. The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen hopes to begin releasing the initial findings from this large-scale project in mid-2009.

Commenting on the project on the eve of the Dresden Conference on the Restitution of Artworks, Prof. Martin Roth, Director-General of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, said, “The project that has been initiated by the Saxon state government in collaboration with the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden is a milestone in research on recent German history. Within the foreseeable future, we will be able to have our entire holdings, both those in storage and those on display, digitally recorded and made accessible for research on ownership. We have now been given the tools we need to fulfil our responsibilities. Thanks to this highly concentrated funding support of the state, we have been able to quickly recruit some 60 temporary staff to conduct inventory work and provenance research. What we are doing here in Saxony is something we warmly recommend others to embark upon.”

Martin Roth puts the sheer scale of the project in perspective by recalling the recent provision by the German Federal Government of a subsidy of €1 million per year, for a period of five years, to be shared by all Germany’s museums for the purposes of provenance research and thus to enable Jewish-owned property to be returned. “The volume of funding that is to be made available to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden alone over the next ten years, the sum of €15 million, sets a wonderful example; it is also realistic.”

Following the conference in Dresden on 2 October 2008, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden will be hosting an international symposium in Moscow, in partnership with the German Historical Institute in Moscow and Russian partner institutions, to run from 26-28 February 2009. The symposium’s theme will be “Trophäen – Verluste – Äquivalente. Kulturgüter als Kriegsopfer: Forschungsstand und Perspektiven” (Trophies – Losses - Equivalence. Cultural Goods as War Victims: Current Research and Prospects). This forum will address the progress made to date in the recording of Russian wartime losses and in the search for missing Russian-owned artworks. The symposium is a pilot project as it is the first time that German museums have offered a platform to their Russian partners, attempting in this way to loosen the log jam in the looted-art debate by directly addressing the issues that matter to the Russian institutions.

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