In the past couple of years, Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Ohio, has embarrassed itself twice, costing it both big bucks and its reputation. The first episode was the Gibson’s Bakery fracas, when, after catching admitted student shoplifters stealing wine, Gibson’s was then punished, defamed, and accused of racism by Oberlin. The courts fined Oberlin $36.6 million for this behavior, which the school paid after trying at all costs to avoid owning up to their defamation (they still haven’t apologized), and now Oberlin’s suing their own insurance companies, which say the court fines aren’t indemnified. Oberlin’s behavior was reprehensible since Gibson’s had no history of racism and was a respected local institution. (All my posts on this sorry episode are here.)
Incident #2: Kim Russell, the coach of Oberlin’s women’s lacrosse team, speaking privately on social media, implied that only biological women should compete on women’s athletic teams. (Russell didn’t count swimmer Lia Thomas, a self-declared trans female, as not the “real winner” of a woman’s swimming match.) Russell violated none of Oberlin’s rules, and it is in fact impossible to have a “women’s team” at Oberlin unless there’s a hormone-treated trans female who wishes to compete, and then the women’s team has to be called a “mixed team” for a year. Medically untreated trans females cannot compete on women’s teams at Oberlin.
Russell was investigated by Oberlin, reproved, and then removed from contact with her beloved athletes and given a desk job. All for supporting what science tells us: men who go through male puberty, and then transition to being trans women, retain their athletic advantages whether or not they’re medically treated. Russell, speaking personally, was exercising her freedom of speech, not making a policy statement.
Now, according to Legal Insurrection, Oberlin has made a third misstep. (Click to read).
Oberlin happens to be in possession, in its art museum, of a valuable drawing by the late Austrian painter Egon Schiele (one of my favorite artists). It turns out that that drawing was owned by a Jewish collector, who, imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau, was forced to sign over all his art to the Nazis. The descendants of that deceased collector have been trying to get the drawing back from Oberlin since 2006:
The Manhattan D.A. recently issued a criminal seizure warrant for ‘Girl With Black Hair’ in the possession of Oberlin College’s Allen Museum. Court records in a civil case reveal that the college has been fighting at least since 2006 against return of the drawing. This is in contrast to the college’s repatriation of an item of Native American craft returned to the Nez Perce tribe in 2002. Are items stolen from Jews during the Holocaust less worthy of return than items obtained from Native American tribes?
The D.A. is attempting to recover that drawing and others located at other museums and private collections, which were stolen by the Nazis from Fritz Grünbaum, a prominent Jewish art collector and cabaret artist, who was forced under duress to sign over rights to his collection as part of the Nazi confiscation of Jewish property, while interned at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, where he died in 1941.
While the criminal warrant to Oberlin College and two other institutions put the dispute in the current headlines, the Grünbaum heirs have have been trying at least since 2006 to get Oberlin College to return the drawing, to no avail. We have not seen that long history reported before, and we learned of it while reviewing court filings in a civil case filed against Oberlin College and others in late 2022, which Oberlin College also is fighting. Among other things, Oberlin College disputes the constitutionality of applying the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016.
The story is long, but first have a look at the lovely drawing (worth about $1.5 million) in the Oberlin’s Allen Museum (from the article):
This is a simple matter of right and wrong, and the Manhattan D.A. doesn’t buy Oberlin’s defense (Oberlin’s still in possession of the drawing). What’s worse is that Oberlin voluntarily gave back Native American artifacts that were legally in its possession:
On April 27, 2002, the Oberlin College Department of Anthropology returned to the Nez Perce Tribe a twined root bag that had been lost in their ethnographic collections for over a hundred years. This bag was collected by Henry Harmon Spalding, missionary to the Nez Perce, in the 1840’s, and is part of the Spalding-Allen Collection that is on display at the Nez Perce National Historic Park in Spalding, Idaho. The symposium consisted of lectures on the history of the collection and the development of flat twined weaving in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as panel discussions on museum collections and repatriation of Native American cultural patrimony.
Here’s the returned Native American artifact, the root bag:
So Oberlin refuses to return a valuable Schiele drawing stolen from a Jewish collector, using legal excuses, but voluntarily returns a Native American artifact that was acquired legally.
Even if Oberlin had a legal leg to stand on with the Schiele drawing, it should return it. It’s the right thing to do. By keeping the drawing, Oberlin is implying that it’s okay to hold onto stolen art so long as it was stolen from a Jew, but not okay to hold onto any Native American art, even if acquired legally. As Legal Insurrection concludes,
. . .the question remains, why fight for so long the return of an item stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust? Why not treat it like the twined root bag returned to the Nez Perce tribe, where ethics and morality — not the law — led Oberlin College to give up its possession? Are items stolen from Jews during the Holocaust less worthy of non-legal ethical considerations than items obtained from Native American tribes?
Why wait until the legal and public pressure mounts? Why not have returned the artwork in 2006, or last year when a civil lawsuit seeking its return was filed. Will it really take a criminal seizure warrant to get back this stolen property?
It’s often said that “integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” No one was watching Oberlin College as relates to Girl With Black Hair for most of the 17 years Oberlin College has been fighting its return. Oberlin College had almost two decades to do the right thing as to the stolen drawing, when no one was watching. Now people are watching, so no virtue signaling is warranted if Oberlin College finally gives up possession of the drawing.
Oberlin College, which professes its social justice bona fides, apparently didn’t consider the return of a stolen drawing taken by the Nazis from a Jewish Holocaust victim to be social justice.
One thing is for sure, if I had a kid, I would not pay for it to go to Oberlin, and I would urge those parents or students considering the school to think twice. It has acted immorally three times now, and shows no signs of having any conscience at all.