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Eizenstat Favors U.S. Nazi Loot Panel to Advise on Disputed Art

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Bloomberg 28 June 2009
By Catherine Hickley

Stuart Eizenstat, leading the U.S. delegation at an international conference on Holocaust-era assets in Prague, called for a new U.S. panel to rule on Nazi- looted art disputes to help claimants achieve fair settlements.

“I am more and more convinced, particularly in the art area, that we in the U.S. need some type of arbitration commission,” Eizenstat, a former Undersecretary for Commerce and deputy Treasury secretary, said in an interview in Prague. The panel would “provide some expert judgments on these cases which now go to court in endless litigation,” he said.

The Nazis stole at least 600,000 artworks during Adolf Hitler’s 12-year reign, thousands of which are still held by museums around the world, claimants’ groups say. The June 26-30 conference in Prague, attended by delegates from some 50 countries, aims to review how far nations put into action a non- binding 1998 agreement known as the Washington principles.

Under those 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 theft victims and their heirs.

Lawyers and claimants’ groups complain that U.S. courts often use laches and statutes of limitations to dismiss restitution cases on technical grounds. Cases are too rarely decided on the basis of what happened 70 years ago, they say.

Claims Conference

“No general claims resolution has been set up for dealing with Nazi art claims, and claims are mostly dealt with on an ad hoc basis that requires claimants ultimately to go through courts,” the Jewish Claims Conference said in a report. The claims body was reporting to the Prague meeting on how far countries have made good on their Washington pledges.

“Some museums have started to file suits against claimants to ‘quiet title,’ thereby invoking technical legal defenses in order to avoid restituting objects and compelling claimants to spend large sums in legal fees,” the report said.

Eizenstat, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, said the model for a U.S. panel could be the U.K. Spoliation Advisory Panel, founded to resolve disputes about art lost in the Nazi era that is now held in British museums. He said such a panel may be a mandatory step before museums and claimants can consider lawsuits.

“This is going to take a lot of work and a lot of massaging,” Eizenstat said. “Is it advisory, it is mandatory? Will it require congressional action or can it be done administratively? Those are things we need to work out but I am absolutely convinced that it needs to be done.”

Initial discussions between the U.S. State Department and museums have been promising, Eizenstat said.

“I was pleased to find that a number of the museums including the National Gallery in Washington and some of the lawyers representing the Association of Art Museum Directors seemed positive to having some kind of a panel,” Eizenstat said.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

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