55 years later, restitution is an art

Jerusalem Post 8 September 2007
Marilyn Henry

Fifty-five years ago, West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, foreign minister Moshe Sharett and Nahum Goldmann of the Claims Conference met in a somber ceremony at Luxembourg's City Hall and signed unprecedented agreements regarding Nazi-era injuries and losses. Although Jewish material losses were staggering, under the Luxembourg Agreements of September 10, 1952, German payments to individual victims were significant.

Germany has paid more than DM 100 billion to Nazi victims in the last 55 years. Victims also were entitled to restitution for seized properties; if the properties - such as artworks - were no longer accessible, West Germany agreed to pay compensation.

The German compensation records are the single largest source of documentation of victims' losses during the Nazi era. They are not only of historical value. If Germany opened the records, these could facilitate or revive claims for artworks that were confiscated or displaced in Europe during World War II.

Because the artworks are moveable properties that originally were seized, stolen, sold or shipped some six decades ago, survivors and heirs face enormous hurdles in trying to locate and claim them. Although the Nazis kept detailed records of seizures, and the post-war Allies documented the treasures they found in Occupied Germany, the sheer mass of publicly available material means any claimant must search for a needle in a haystack.

For instance, the US National Archives has the records of the Office of the US Military Governor, Germany. That office generated more than a million pages of documentation on cultural properties. "To give you a sense of size," said Greg Bradsher of the archives, "if you spent one minute looking at every page, not taking notes or copying pages, it would take almost 17,000 hours."

Many potential claimants do not have the resources to search for artworks that, by now, may be anywhere in the world. The history and ownership of many artworks are identified only when they come to market.

Reputable auction houses and dealers, fearing the liability of selling any stolen art, rely - in part - on databases to determine if there are theft reports or claims for given works. The most prominent database is run by a private international company based in London, the Art Loss Register (ALR). The ALR collects information on stolen or missing works from insurers and police agencies, as well as from Nazi victims and heirs. In general, if an object is not listed with the ALR, it can be sold with a fair amount of confidence that no one has reported it stolen.

However, with Nazi-era losses, the onus is on the potential claimant to post the loss on a database. This is unlikely if the original owner has died; the heirs often do not know of the artworks' existence, or lack the documentation either to confirm pre-war ownership or prove that the object was lost because of Nazi persecution and was not recovered after the war.

This is why the German compensation records are vital to complement the ALR database. While the ALR posts Nazi-era objects reported missing, the German government could provide records of artworks for which it had paid compensation. The post-war German authorities were rigorous - some would say draconian - in confirming a claim before compensating a Nazi victim for a loss. This makes German records nearly perfect proof that an individual owned an object before the war and lost it due to persecution.

For instance, when a European buyer was interested in a Picasso, Femme en blanc, owned by a Chicago collector, the ALR was hired to check for claims as well as the painting's provenance. No claim was registered. Five years ago, however, the ALR learned that the painting had been looted in Paris. After a thorough, and time-consuming, exercise in detection, it determined that the pre-war owner was Carlota Landsberg of Berlin.

The provenance research would have been easier and less expensive if Germany had made its restitution records available. These would have revealed that the German government paid Landsberg compensation of DM 100,000 for the Picasso. That payment did not remove the taint of theft from the painting. Instead, the German government paid on condition that if she recovered the artwork, she would have to repay the compensation.

The Chicago collector reached a settlement with Landsberg's heir, who had been unaware of the painting until the ALR contacted him.

A German database would not be complete. It would be an inventory of successful claims, not of all losses. Some legitimate claimants did not receive payments because they could not meet the German eligibility criteria or claims deadlines. Other victims did not file claims. Some who survived the war did not live long enough to see the German federal restitution law enacted, or were unaware that they qualified to file claims. Others declined to file claims, believing that German payments were "blood money."

Nonetheless, the German records are extensive and authoritative. There are, of course, privacy concerns that Germany must address. However, these are not insurmountable. The German government need not make public a list of claimants from the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, it could function much in the same way the ALR does: When an object is on the market, the art trade asks the ALR if it has been registered as stolen; at the same time, the trade could ask the German government if it paid compensation for the object. If so, the original owner or heir could be identified, and could attempt to reach an agreement to recover the object, part of which would entail returning the German compensation.

When Adenauer signed the Luxembourg Agreements 55 years ago, it was understood that this was West Germany's first step in making moral and material amends to Nazi victims. Its responsibility has not ended with payments to victims, however substantial those amounts may be. The next step should be facilitating claims for Nazi-looted artworks, using records that Germany is in a unique position to provide.

The writer is the author of Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference, with a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert, published by Vallentine Mitchell in London.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024