Nazi Loot Recovery Is Slow, Arbitrary, Claimants’ Groups Say

Bloomberg 25 June 2009
By Catherine Hickley

Governments have failed to live up to commitments to track down and return looted art to Nazi victims and their heirs, claimants’ representatives said before an international meeting on Holocaust-era assets.

The June 26-30 conference in Prague, attended by delegates from some 50 countries, will review how far nations put into action a non-binding 1998 agreement, known as the Washington principles. Delegates also aim to agree a new declaration on stolen art. Groups representing Jewish victims of theft and their heirs say there are still thousands of looted objects languishing in museums.

“Much too little has been achieved,” Georg Heuberger, the Jewish Claims Conference’s representative in Germany, said by telephone from Frankfurt. “Each country has done its own thing, and only one-third of the countries has made any effort. We find that very unsatisfactory.”

During Adolf Hitler’s 12-year rule, the Nazis stole about 650,000 artworks, the Claims Conference estimates. Almost 65 years after the end of World War II, the Art Loss Register, a database of stolen art, lists 70,000 works lost before and during the war that are still being sought by the owners.

Under the Washington principles, 44 governments agreed to identify stolen art in museums’ collections, publicize the results and encourage pre-war owners and their heirs to make claims. They also promised to strive for “a just and fair solution” with the victims.

Mercy of Museums’

“The principles provide an excellent paradigm,” Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said by telephone from London. “The problem is that for the most part, they haven’t been implemented.

“Most countries have not checked the provenance of their artworks, made their records available or set up transparent claims procedures,” Webber said. “Claimants are thrown at the mercy of individual museums or governments with no certainty or predictability as to how their claims will be treated.”

Heuberger said the Claims Conference has ranked countries according to how much they have done to implement the Washington principles. He plans to announce the findings in Prague.

“What we regret is that there has been no monitoring group to track progress,” Heuberger said. “We would like to have a commission or institute on an international level, outside national states, that discusses disputed cases.”

Russia, Hungary, France, Italy, Spain and some Scandinavian countries are among those which have failed to make good on commitments, Webber said.

Renoir, Manet

In Hungary, the Herzog family has been trying since 1989 to get back looted works by artists including El Greco, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Edouard Manet, many of which now hang in the Hungarian National Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts, said Agnes Peresztegi, a Budapest-based lawyer who specializes in stolen art. The family may now pursue their claim in U.S. courts, she said.

“The Washington agreement hasn’t been implemented at all in Hungary,” Peresztegi said. “In Prague, there will be a declaration affirming the principles and calling for a bit more, and we hope the Hungarian government will take it seriously.”

In Sweden, the Moderna Museet has failed to settle a seven- year dispute with the heirs of Otto Nathan Deutsch over a Nazi- looted Emil Nolde painting in its collection, prompting the heirs to complain of “delaying tactics.” The government has delegated resolving the claim to the museum.

Restitution Roulette’

“Sweden hasn’t implemented the Washington principles at all,” said David Rowland, the lawyer representing the heirs. “They have no system, no criteria for returning looted art.”

Rowland, who has represented heirs in looted art cases in several countries, describes the current situation as “restitution roulette.” The Swiss city of Basel in 2008 rejected a claim by the heirs of Curt Glaser, who are his clients, for the return of more than 100 art works by artists including Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.

The heirs said Glaser had no alternative but to sell the works to fund his escape from Nazi Germany in 1933. Basel argues that its Kunstmuseum paid market prices. The U.K.’s Spoliation Advisory Panel used similar arguments in a recommendation yesterday rejecting a claim for eight drawings sold by Glaser before his departure. Yet in September 2007, the German city of Hanover returned a painting by Lovis Corinth that Glaser had sold at auction at about the same time.

“We come across cases where claimants request the return of paintings that were seized at the same time and the same place,” said Webber. “One museum may decide to restitute, another will decide against it.”

Model Austria

Claimants’ representatives say Austria and the Netherlands best comply with the requirements of the Washington principles. Both countries established commissions which rule on disputed cases according to fixed criteria and publish their decisions.

Other countries have more recently taken steps to improve conditions for claimants. In the U.K., a Holocaust Stolen Art Restitution Bill will get its third reading in the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament, on June 26. The bill will permit national museums to restitute art in their collections, which until now was not possible.

In Germany, where museums have returned more than 1,000 objects looted by the Nazis in more than 60 cases since 1998, the government in 2008 founded an agency charged with researching the ownership history of art in public collections.

“What we still need is more provenance research,” said Gunnar Schnabel, a Berlin-based lawyer who specializes in art restitution. “That is the most important thing. It would be great to have a worldwide public database, where museums enter all art of dubious provenance. Then all those affected could do their own research and save money on expensive lawyers.”

Museums in Court

Rowland said he favors the creation of a restitution panel in the U.S., where museums are mostly private and don’t feel bound by the Washington principles. Cases end up in court and museums often use laches and statutes of limitations to defeat heirs’ claims on technical grounds, he said.

“In the U.S., lawyers have been put in charge,” said Marc Masurovsky, a historian who has advised successive U.S. governments on Holocaust-era assets. “There has been a massive failure on the side of public policy.”

The Prague event is an opportunity to “refocus attention and reinforce the urgency of the situation,” Webber said.

“We’ve moved some way in 10 years, but not far enough, and families can’t be expected to wait another 10 years,” she said. “Art restitution remains a major challenge. There are people still alive and looking for things of meaning. It is even more urgent than it was 10 years ago.”

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at
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