Pols call for new hearings on Nazi-looted artwork

The Jewish Advocate 22 March 2006
Ted Siefer

Rep. hopes to restore property to their rightful owners

Congressional Democrats are pushing for a hearing on assets looted during the Nazi era now owned by American individuals and institutions, focusing in particular on artwork that may now be part of museum collections.

All 32 Democrats on the Financial Services Committee wrote earlier this month to the chairwoman of the subcommittee on domestic and international policy, Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), asking for a review of the work of a presidential advisory commission that produced a report in 2000 on the fate of Holocaust-era assets in U.S. custody.

The effort to open hearings is being spearheaded by New York Congressman Steve Israel and Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

“This is one more step to deal with the consequences of the Holocaust, and root out the last vestiges of it as best we can,” Frank told the Advocate.

The main purpose of the hearings, Frank said, would be to raise awareness about a category of Nazi-era assets that hasn’t received a great deal of attention or study: the presence of Nazi-looted artwork in the U.S.

The push to assess the state of artwork with ties to the Nazis came at the behest of the Claims Conference, the umbrella organization seeking to settle claims against Germany on behalf of Holocaust survivors and heirs.

“In some ways [artwork] is the poor stepchild of the whole restitution process,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference. “But it goes to much more important issues than monetary value. These paintings have symbolic value; often they were the last thing a family owned, so they have a special preciousness.”

Taylor said that the conference aims to get museums to cooperate in forming a database that could be used to trace the provenance of artwork and, at the same time, to establish a claims process that is not based only on “legal technicalities.”

Paintings rarely have the paper trail associated with them that other assets do, Taylor said, noting that in one case the only proof survivors had that a painting belonged to them was an old photograph showing the painting in the background.

Taylor said that no one knows just how much Nazi-looted artwork found its way into U.S. collections. “Until we have a more open transparent process, I think it’s hard to get any kind of estimate.

Certainly there were thousands of artworks that came over from Europe. How much of it was looted – this is part of the purpose of holding a hearing, to encourage institutions to be open and transparent.”

The call for Congressional action comes a month after the heir of a Holocaust victim, Los Angeles resident Maria Altmann, won the largest restitution of Jewish-owned artwork in history – five paintings by Gustav Klimt, each valued at close to $5 million, returned by the government of Austria.

Taylor said that the conference’s work on art restitution predated the settlement, but that the Altmann decision highlighted the problem.

“Our focus is less on the high profile cases and more on the process,” he said. “Whether it leads to Klimt paintings or works of small value, it’s about having a fair and proper process.”
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