On June 9, the 17th Annual Federal Inter-Agency Holocaust Remembrance Program focused on "Lessons Learned." The program included Holocaust survivors who related their experiences during the Nazi regime. If the artwork U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rescued and returned could speak, they too, would be able to recount examples of the depths of human tyranny as well as moments of triumph.
When the Nazi regime had Europe in its stranglehold during the late 1930s, millions of people perished and property was looted and destroyed. The stories behind four paintings and a Bible ICE recovered reflect disturbing images: families abandoning their homes and forced to sell their businesses, people fleeing the country fearing for their lives, children hiding and trying to survive in forests and groves, a night time siege waged on businesses and religious institutions. All are flashbacks to the 20th century reign of terror and persecution of Jews and others targeted groups known as the Holocaust.
The ICE Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Office in New York assigns Senior Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt, the subject matter expert of cultural property, art and antiquities for the Northeast region, to lead historical artwork investigations. Many of these SAC New York cases have resulted in reunifying works of art with their original owners or their estates.
"People are often surprised that ICE is involved in the recovery of art and antiquities," said Goldblatt. "But this is a traditional role for the legacy customs agency, as there is often fraud and smuggling involved in the movement of these pieces."
The following historical gems had changed hands and been adrift for decades:
- ICE returned a 16th Century Hebrew Bible to the Jewish Community of Vienna on Nov. 9, 2009 -- the 71-year anniversary of Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), or Night of Broken Glass, when the Gestapo coordinated an attack on the Jewish people and their property. This Bible, lost to its Jewish owners that night, contains two volumes and includes works of scholars dating back to the 11th century.
- A painting named Jeune Fille a la Robe Bleue,is a portrait of a little girl wearing a blue dress and holding her pet rabbit. Belgian artist Antoine (Anto) Carte created the painting in 1932. The painting was displayed in the family's winter home in Ohain, Belgium. With the Nazis in power, the family was forced to flee, abandoning their home and all their belongings. The family, including the little girl in the portrait, went into hiding, and survived in the Belgian countryside. Decades later, ICE discovered the painting at a Long Island art gallery. ICE seized it, and on December 1, 2009, repatriated it to the subject of the painting, an elderly woman now living in Belgium.
- Working undercover, ICE investigators visited a Manhattan art gallery and discovered the Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe, aportrait valued at about $60,000 which was created in 1932 by an artist in the Netherlands. The painting had been stolen from the late Jewish art dealer Max Stern of Germany. The Nazis forced Stern to sell this painting, along with 200 of his other paintings, while the rogue regime kept the proceeds of the sales. Stern fled Germany and eventually settled in Canada. ICE seized the painting and returned it to the estate of Dr. Stern in a repatriation ceremony on April 21, 2009.
- The Bagpiper Portrait led to the recovery of another masterpiece from Stern's collection that had also been stolen from the Nazis -- a 16th century oil -- the St. Jerome painting.
The items above are a sampling of many masterpieces that were stolen during the Nazi's regime. ICE's Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program coordinates these investigations under the agency's National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center). Special Agent Craig Karch, the National Program Manager of the IPR Center, attributes the increase in ICE investigations of cultural heritage violations as a direct result of the ICE headquarters Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities training program.
"Having ICE agents specifically trained in conducting investigations of illicitly trafficked cultural property and art has provided our agents with the necessary tools to identify violations, conduct criminal investigations and, ultimately, return stolen objects of a nation's cultural heritage to their rightful owners," Karch said.
An investigation Goldblatt began in 1998 surrounding the Portrait of Wally, a painting by Egon Schiele, focused laser-like attention on artwork stolen by the Nazis. The fate of Portrait of Wally is now in litigation, but the case has prompted museums and other institutions to examine artwork in their own collections that may have been stolen during the Holocaust.
As the largest investigative agency within the Department of Homeland Security, and a member of the Department of State's Holocaust Art Recovery Working Group, ICE is leading the charge in finding and returning masterpieces and ancient treasures to their rightful owners.