Handbook on Judaica Provenance Research: Ceremonial Objects

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) are pleased to publish the Handbook on Judaica Provenance Research: Ceremonial Objects. As of April 2019, thanks to the German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media the Handbook is also available in German as “Handbuch Judaica Provenienz Forschung: Zeremonialobjekte“. This online Handbook is meant to help museum staff, researchers, auctioneers, collectors, lawyers, private persons, dealers and other interested parties to trace Judaica objects that were looted or displaced during the 20th century, especially during World War II. These objects may be found in Jewish and non-Jewish museum collections; in private collections; in Jewish institutions such as communities, synagogues, seminaries; and on the market.

Handbook on Judaica Provenance Research: Ceremonial Objects [PDF]

The Prague Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets resulted in the Terezin Declaration, which for the first time specifically dealt internationally with looted Judaica separately from looted art.  The Prague Conference was followed by the establishment of the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), which as part of its Advisory Council appointed a Working Group on Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property chaired by Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek and with the following members: Inka Bertz , Julie-Marthe Cohen, Daniel Dratwa, Wesley Fisher , Karen Franklin , Rhoda Rosen , Hila Tene-Gilad , Photini Tomai-Constantopoulou, and Magda Veselská . Over the years that followed, many of the members of this Working Group held discussions among themselves – generally in conjunction with meetings of the Association of European Jewish Museums (AEJM) – about what would be most helpful to the field of provenance research on Judaica and what should happen concerning the restitution or other disposition of looted Judaica.  One of their conclusions was the need for a handbook on Judaica provenance research.

While some similar guides or manuals exist regarding provenance research on looted art, nothing comparable to date has existed for Judaica.  The nature of objets d’art differs substantially from that of Judaica, and consequently so does the research to be carried out. For example, the uniqueness of individual paintings and sculptures differs from the serial character of Judaica objects; there are far more publications that help to identify a given painting than there are for identifying a Judaica piece; and while Nazi looting agencies often registered works of art systematically, they did not do so regarding looted Judaica, and the same seems to be true of Allied postwar records.

The Handbook covers research of two different categories: classical provenance research, which deals with tracing an object at hand to its original owner, and research which deals with establishing the location of a lost object. It consists of four parts:

  • The first part provides an overview of prewar Judaica and Jewish museum collections, an overview of Nazi agencies engaged in the looting of Jewish material culture, the looting of Judaica, the dispersion of the objects after World War II and, briefly, the nationalizations of Judaica before, during and after the war.
  • The second part deals with the identification of Judaica objects and is intended especially for people who are not familiar with this kind of material culture. It gives a typology of Judaica and offers tools to identify an object (origin, age, region, material, etc.).
  • Part three explains how provenance and location can be established by the use of specific documentation and where this kind of documentation may be found.
  • Part four offers a listing of online databases, and a bibliography of Jewish museum and exhibition catalogues as well as of other relevant literature.

The authors of the Handbook are Julie-Marthe Cohen, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, and Ruth Jolanda Weinberger:

  • Julie-Marthe Cohen studied Italian language and literature at the University of Amsterdam. She is curator of cultural history at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. In that capacity, she organizes exhibitions and publishes on topics relating to the Museum’s collection and to Amsterdam Portuguese and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. Since 2000, she has taken a special interest in the wartime history of the Museum’s collection and of Judaica collections of Jewish communities in the Netherlands and developed a database of missing and misplaced objects from the Museum’s collection. In 2011 she co-edited with Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek Neglected Witnesses. The Fate of Jewish Ceremonial Objects During the Second World War and After.
  • Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies and Art History from the University of Vienna. Since 2011 she has worked as a freelance curator, consultant to Jewish museums and university lecturer (see: http://www.xhibit.at/heimann). Prior to that she served as chief curator at the Jewish Museum Vienna for twenty years. Since 2013 she heads the Advanced Curatorial Education Programme for the Association of European Jewish Museums. In addition to numerous publications on Jewish cultural history, she published together with Julie-Marthe Cohen Neglected Witnesses: The Fate of Jewish Ceremonial Objects during the Second World War and After in 2011.
  • Ruth Jolanda Weinberger holds a doctoral degree in history from the University of Vienna. She is a historian for the Looted Art and Cultural Property Initiative at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. She co-produced the worldwide Descriptive Catalogue of Looted Judaica and worked on the 2014 report Holocaust-Era Art: An Overview of Worldwide Progress. She created a report entitled The Looting of Jewish and Cultural Objects in Former Yugoslavia: The HAG Südosten & the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in Belgrade, Agram (Zagreb) and Ragusa (Dubrovnik),  and a large number of internal papers on provenance research and restitution procedures in various countries worldwide.  Previously  she worked for the Swiss Refugee Program of the Swiss Bank Settlement, the Vienna-based Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria, and the Fund for Victims of Medical Experiments and Other Injuries administered by the Claims Conference, under the auspices of the German Foundation.

Provenance research on Judaica is important on moral grounds. It is important for the preservation and understanding of Jewish culture. It is important for Holocaust remembrance. And it is a worldwide matter.  The Handbook on Judaica Provenance Research: Ceremonial Objects should prove a helpful step forward.