Ayesha Rascoe talks to Andrea Bayer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art about a new New York law requiring museums to acknowledge if an artwork was stolen by the Nazi regime.
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Select works of art in New York museums will soon receive updated signage. Earlier this month, Governor Kathy Hochul signed a law that requires museums to disclose if an artwork was stolen by the Nazis. The law is part of a larger state effort to honor the memory of Holocaust survivors. Andrea Bayer is Deputy Director of Collections and Administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and joins us now. Welcome.
ANDREA BAYER: Thank you so much for inviting me, Ayesha.
RASCOE: How common is it for museums to have art stolen by the Nazis in their collections?
BAYER: Well, art theft was rampant under the Nazis, and some of the – at the end of the war, some of the art treasures that were found are in staggering amounts. Much of this was returned to the original families where possible. But over the past few decades, much research has been done to determine if there are still works of art in the world that have not been returned to their original owners.
RASCOE: How did you understand that?
BAYER: First of all, men and women – some of them Met employees, curators – at the end of the war, made inventories of the works they found that had been stolen by the Nazis. So all over Europe, people were doing that. The Nazis themselves kept very serious inventories, and they can match parts to those inventories. Subsequently, large databases were built up that also track works of art that are suspected of having been stolen or that we know have been stolen. And we can leverage that knowledge in our research.
RASCOE: And so the law in New York now says that museums will have to prominently place a sign or other signage next to stolen works. How does the Met plan to incorporate this rule into, you know, its collections?
BAYER: So we already have on our website a detailed description of 53 works of art that we know were returned at the end of the war and then sold or donated afterwards. So it’s not a huge number, is it? That’s a discrete amount of work. They fall into several categories – European paintings, medieval art, European sculpture and decorative arts. And in all of these areas, we will now sit down with the Conservatives and work out how we can best implement this new law. What should we say? Where exactly should the information go? What type of information is most valuable? How can we present it in a way that they read it and understand what the issues are because these are complex issues?
RASCOE: Obviously this law focuses on World War II and the Nazis, but there has been a lot of talk in recent years about non-European works of art that have been taken from countries in Africa or other places. Is there a thought that’s not in this law, but just for the Met, like, how they think about this kind of art?
Bayer: Yes. We have in recent years returned a number of objects to different countries, both in Europe and in Asia and elsewhere. And in fact, on August 15 alone, we returned two items to Nepal. It’s a similar kind of research. When it is shown to us that an object has been stolen, illegally exported under our laws and the laws of the country in which it was found, we are very open to the return of these works of art.
RASCOE: And so, I mean, going back to the current law, what do you hope people take away when they visit the Met and other museums and see this information next to these works of art ?
BAYER: I think it will make them think a lot about history and how these objects hold within them stories that go far beyond us, at different points in time, to people’s suffering, to trauma people, and how we hope that when they come to the Metropolitan Museum, they have found a good home.
RASCOE: Andrea Bayer, Deputy Director of Collections and Administration at the Met, thank you very much for being with us.
BAYER: Thank you so much for having me and for this wonderful conversation.
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