Holocaust Conference Urges More Efforts on Looted Art

Bloomberg 29 June 2009
By Catherine Hickley

The governments of 46 nations pledged to boost efforts to return artworks and other property seized during the Nazi era to Jewish victims and their heirs.

After a Prague meeting on Holocaust-era assets, delegates will tomorrow endorse a non-binding accord, promising to conduct more provenance research on art in public collections, to open public archives and to ensure that claimants have access to “just and fair” solutions and speedy consideration of their claims.

“Our work to rectify the wrongs of the Holocaust remains highly incomplete,” Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. deputy Treasury secretary leading the American delegation in Prague, said in a speech. “Too few people have recovered too few of their Nazi-looted artworks and too many works remain in museums and private collections in Europe and around the world.”

During Adolf Hitler’s 12-year rule, the Nazis stole about 650,000 artworks, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany 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.

The Prague conference was called to review progress since governments agreed in Washington in 1998 to identify stolen art in museums’ collections, publicize the results and encourage pre-war owners and their heirs to make claims.

‘Far Too Few’

In a report compiled for the Prague conference, the Claims Conference and World Jewish Restitution Organization said “progress has been slow” in restituting art. The report found that only one-third of the 44 governments who agreed to the Washington principles had made “major” or “substantial” progress toward implementing them in the past 10 years.

“I can only say that this is far too few and altogether unsatisfactory,” Georg Heuberger, the representative of the Claims Conference in Germany, said in a speech to delegates.

Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic were the only four countries to make “major progress,” the Claims Conference said. A group of 11 countries, including the U.S., U.K. and France, have made “substantial” progress, the report found.

A list of 23 countries that have made “no significant progress” included Hungary, Poland, Spain and Italy.

‘Just Solution’

The declaration, to be endorsed at the site of the Terezin concentration camp about 60 kilometers north of Prague tomorrow, says the states “affirm an urgent need to strengthen and sustain these efforts in order to ensure just and fair solutions regarding cultural property, including Judaica that was looted or displaced during or as a result of the Holocaust.”

The statement also included pledges to better care for Holocaust survivors, many of whom live in poverty; to restitute immovable property such as real estate to Holocaust victims and their heirs; to maintain cemeteries; to commemorate the Holocaust with ceremonies and include education about it in school syllabuses; and to establish a European Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezin.

Eizenstat said the new institute will provide a “follow- up” mechanism to monitor countries’ progress in implementing commitments, and to develop “voluntary best practices and guidelines” for restitution. He called on the European Union “to take a leadership role” on Holocaust issues.

“Unfortunately the resolution itself is very vague” on art restitution, said Marc Masurovsky, a historian who has advised successive U.S. governments on Holocaust-era assets.

“The greatest fear is that, like in 1998, everybody goes home and nothing happens,” he said. “Individuals need to come forward to pool resources and enact new laws and so on -- without that, we’re back to square one.”

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