Paul Rosenberg, one of the world’s most prominent dealers in Modern Art after World War I, established an extensive collection of museum-quality art, including works by such names as Rodin, Cézanne, Monet, and Modigliani. For three generations, the Rosenberg family has painstakingly searched for the hundreds of artworks that were looted from their family by the Nazis. Currently, the family is negotiating the return of a Matisse that has hung in the Henie Onstad Arts Center in Norway for the past forty-five years. The family sees pursuit of their lost artwork as a crusade; they have searched through auction catalogs, collaborated with Interpol, brought museums to court, and have even bought back their own property. Thus far, the Rosenberg family has recovered more than 340 of the roughly 400 works they lost. Marc Masurovsky, a founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, points out that the Rosenberg’s “are part of the 5 percent of those who have been successful” and that “They set an example of how restitution should take place.”
While the Rosenbergs are an exceptional case—given the extent and prestige of their collection as well as the meticulous records kept by Paul Rosenberg that have been used to discount those who discredit their claims—their crusade raises many pertinent issues. One such dispute is the fact that, after so many years—and what can be considered legitimate purchases—many people/institutions may in fact have reasonable claims to looted artworks. Experts estimate the roughly 100,000 pieces worth perhaps $10 billion are still missing from Nazi plundering. How can we best approach the reconstitution of cultural legacy?