Pen and Ink Art Translations

Provenance Research

From a report on the extent of the Swiss government’s investigations into looted art immediately following World War II

On the basis of a document from the SCO (Swiss Compensation Office), we know that this certification work was entrusted to the SCO in early 1947 following a request from the Legation of the United States in Bern addressed to the FPD (Federal Political Department). According to this letter, the SCO stated that it was ready to take on this new task as long as it was limited to exportations of artworks to the United States. The SCO then recalled the difficulties that it had faced during its research work. In several cases, concerning tracking looted property that was located among the personal possessions of German citizens, they had quickly realized the difficulty of the task because of the lack of documents proving the exact provenance of the objects in question. This situation was often confirmed in the presence of property belonging to a family for which no inventory had ever been drawn up (inherited property, gifts, etc.). The SCO thus decried the lack of precise information that often did not allow for conducting thorough and complete investigations:

“Based on these explanations, we wish to reiterate that we can, of course, only assume responsibility for certificates issued by us within the framework of our ability to check the documents provided to us.”94

This aspect was often mentioned by the SCO to justify the difficulties encountered during research into looted property. The SCO often complained of the lack of specific information concerning the property that was being researched. This is why it had been suggested at the time to organize a generalized inquiry, i.e. to require every person who had had contact with German citizens to announce the property that was purchased.95 It is also true that the decree of February 1946 required the announcement of all property of dubious origin. However, the civil servants of the FPD had no illusions as to the effectiveness of such a process. An internal note for Reinhard Hohl concerning the preparation of the decree of 2/22/1946 did not hide doubts concerning the effectiveness of such an article. Indeed, according to the author,

“the practical reach of this required announcement is, however, quite doubtful, for those who hold looted property and who know it will hardly declare it, preferring to wait to be discovered.”96

Indeed, the text of the law established sanctions for all those who, intentionally, had hidden looted property or did not declare it to the SCO. The people thus targeted by SCO investigators could always invoke their good faith.

94 AF, E 2001 (E) 1967/113 vol. 437. Letter from the SCO to the FPD (3/3/1947).

95 AF, E 2001 (E) 1967/113 vol. 441. Letter from the SCO to the FPD (12/12/1945). The case of Polish property is quite interesting. In this case, SCO employees complained on several occasions of the difficulty in tracking down stolen property belonging to Polish citizens and located, for example, in the mass of frozen German assets. Without a general requirement to declare every transaction with German citizens to the SCO, the chances of finding these goods were, according to the SCO, practically nonexistent.

96 AF, E 2001 (E) 1967/113 vol. 443. Note for Mr. Hohl, Legation Advisor (12/29/1945).