May 17, 2007
Whose Nuremberg Laws are they?
Skirball display of original typescript stirs questions about acquisition, stewardship of infamous Nazi document
(Page 3 - Previous Page)The Huntington Library was originally the San Marino ranch property of Edward Huntington, whose fortunes came from his own family and by marriage and through railroads and real estate. Between 1910 and 1925, he assembled one of the great libraries of the world, acquiring the contents of more than 200 collections, including some of the world's great manuscripts, as well as books, Bibles, Shakespeare folios, presidential papers and rare first editions of poetry and fiction.
In 1919, the library was formally established. In 1925, Huntington agreed to make the library itself into a research institution, and to this day, it remains a place primarily for post-doctoral research.
In 1928, a year after Huntington's death, the estate opened itself to the public. Today, most people know the Huntington for its magnificent gardens, tearoom and Beaux-Arts art galleries, which include Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy."
The Huntington today remains a glorious estate, and its formality and essential WASPy-ness (or goyishness, if you like) is still palpable.
No one contests the Huntington's history of exclusion as detailed by Platt -- not the Skirball, not the current president of the Huntington itself, Steve Koblik, a European history and Holocaust scholar. But they see it as what the Huntington was, not what it is.
As Platt tells the story, the Huntington has evolved over the years. Robert Middlekrauf, its chief executive from 1984 to 1988, began the "democratization" of the organization, inviting more younger scholars and more women to do research there. Skotheim, president from 1988 to 2001, while still a traditionalist, recognized that the institution needed to open its doors by lending materials, inviting a wider range of scholars, as well as hosting a greater variety of exhibits and programs to attract a more diverse audience. The loan of the Nuremberg Laws to the Skirball was ostensibly done in this spirit.
Koblik joined the Huntington in 2001 and is its first Jewish president. He acknowledged in a recent phone interview that the institution's exclusionary past "was very accurate of a Pasadena-San Marino historical culture." However, he noted that San Marino itself is now 60 percent Chinese and, accordingly, very different from what it was in Huntington's day.
"Today the message [of the Huntington]," he said, "is that everybody is welcome." Koblik cited as an example a major series of African American cultural events that the Huntington has hosted over the last two years that "are SRO and 80 percent African American."
As for the Nuremberg Laws, Koblik said: "From the point of view of teaching about the Holocaust, the fact that they are at the Skirball is quite wonderful," He reaffirmed that "the purpose of the loan was to support the Skirball."
As for the question of the actual ownership of the Nuremberg Laws and how the Huntington handled them, Koblik said, "The provenance issue is not a very interesting one."
In reviewing the history of the laws, Koblik offered that "it was during wartime," the laws were "historical materials" and said Patton "liberated them." Koblik pointed out that the U.S. government seized all of the German official documents they could to preserve them. Patton, for his part, instructed the Huntington officials to put the documents in the vault, saying that he would later give instructions. "It's not unusual to get materials with restrictions." Then Patton died. "The family showed no interest in the materials."
"In this case, there was no clarity, no written agreement [regarding the laws]. They were forgotten." Koblik said that "this is not unusual," noting that only recently they had discovered a letter from Christopher Columbus in the vaults.
Koblik suggested that it was interesting to compare the situation with the laws to another case involving the Huntington concerning a photographic copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When Israeli researchers denied access to the scrolls to scholars, the Huntington released its photographic copy in the face of threats of suits from the Israeli government (the suits were never filed).
In the case of the laws, the Huntington's is not the sole copy (the other is in Nuremberg); its contents were widely published and are widely known. And, Koblik said, they are now on display to the public at a place where it has "more meaning."
So the laws and their provenance are "not an issue for us," he concluded.
In truth, the ownership of the Nuremberg Laws is not being contested, and no other claims of ownership have been made. As a friend said to me, "basically, it's just you stirring the pot." Fair enough. Nonetheless, I asked the opinion of E. Randol Schoenberg, the Los Angeles attorney who recently successfully recovered five paintings by Gustav Klimt from an Austrian state-owned museum on behalf of Maria Altmann.
"It would be a difficult case to decide," he said. Noting that there were cases where U.S. soldiers who looted artworks were forced to return their plunder; he acknowledged that claims could be made by the city of Eichstatt for the documents' return. The U.S. government, to which the documents should have been turned over, could also make a claim, and Schoenberg offered an opinion that the U.S. claim would be stronger than the German one. Nonetheless, he said it is possible that if the statute of limitations has run out on filing a claim, the Huntington would prevail. Schoenberg concluded that there is "no easy answer."
Still, the Huntington is not giving up the documents. Although Koblik made clear that the Huntington is not concerned about this issue, he said "our job is to collect and preserve" and reiterated that the documents are on loan and that they could consider requests from another institution, such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington.