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New York art museums must now disclose if a piece was stolen by Nazis


Some pieces of art in New York's museums will be getting updated signage soon. Earlier this month, Governor Kathy Hochul signed a law that requires museums to disclose if a work of art was stolen by the Nazis. The law is part of a larger effort from the state to honor the memory of Holocaust survivors. Andrea Bayer is the deputy director for collections and administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and joins us now. Welcome.

ANDREA BAYER: Thank you so much for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Just how common is it for museums to have art that was stolen by Nazis in their collections?

BAYER: Well, the theft of art was rampant under the Nazis, and some of the - at the end of the war, some of the troves of art that were found are staggering in quantity. A great deal of that was restituted to the original families when possible. But in recent decades, there's been a lot of research to see whether there is still art out there in the world that has not been returned to the original owners.

RASCOE: How do you figure that out?

BAYER: First of all, men and women - some of them Met employees, curators - at the end of the war, made inventories of the works that they found that had been stolen by the Nazis. So all over Europe, people were doing this. The Nazis themselves kept very serious inventories, and they can match the pieces to those inventories. Subsequently, large databases have been built up that also help track works of art that were suspected of being stolen or that we know were stolen. And we are able to draw on that knowledge as we do our research.

RASCOE: And so the law in New York now states that museums will need to prominently place a placard or other signage next to the stolen works. How does the Met plan to integrate that rule into, you know, their collections?

BAYER: So we already have on our website fully described 53 works of art that we know were restituted at the end of the war and then subsequently sold or given to us. So it's not a huge number, right? It's a discrete amount of works. They fall into several categories - European paintings, medieval art, European sculpture and decorative arts. And in all of those areas, we are now going to sit down with the curators and define how we can best carry out this new law. What should we be saying? Where should the information go exactly? What kind of information is most valuable? How can we present it in such a way that they read it and understand what are the issues involved because these are complex issues?

RASCOE: Obviously, this law is focused on World War II and Nazis, but there has been a lot of talk in recent years about non-European pieces of art that have been taken from countries in Africa or other places. Is there any thought that's not in this law, but just for the Met, like, how they're thinking about that sort of art?

BAYER: Yes. We have over the last years restituted a number of objects to various different countries, both in Europe and in Asia and elsewhere. And in fact, just on August 15, we restituted two objects to Nepal. It's a similar kind of research. When it is demonstrated to us that an object has been stolen, illegally exported based on our laws and the laws of the country in which it was found, we are very open to the return of those works of art.

RASCOE: And so, I mean, going back to the law at hand, what do you hope that people will take away when they visit the Met and other museums and see this information next to these pieces of art?

BAYER: I think it will make them think about history a lot and how these objects contain within themselves stories that go way beyond just us, to different moments in time, to people's suffering, to people's traumas, and how we hope that when they have come to the Metropolitan Museum, that they've found a good home.

RASCOE: Andrea Bayer, deputy director of collections and Administration at the Met, thank you so much for being with us.

BAYER: Thank you so much for having me and for a wonderful conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Carly Rubin
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