Nazi art looting: The unfinished business of World War II

The U.S. will return painting stolen by Nazis to Poland . How good or how bad this process of returning the looted art is working in your opinion? Is it anything what would you recommend? Read few comments.

Christopher Marinello, Director & Founder, Art Recovery International

I am currently working on a number of Restitution cases for the Rosenberg family and other families in

eight different countries. No two cases are alike as the facts, documentation, and legal issues vary from case to case.

The process is different in each country with some jurisdictions being more receptive to restitution than others. I am currently involved in amicable negotiations with the Henie Onstad Musuem in Oslo over this painting: and, of course, you know about the Gurlitt case for the same family.

While Germany has been a leader in Restitution over the decades, the Gurlitt case has exposed some genuine flaws in their legal and political systems with regard to nazi-looted works. There has been a real lack of transparency in this case over the last few years which continues to this day.

I support the establishment of an International commission whereby claimants can come forward and have their case heard by competent authorities. The vast majority of claimants do not have the resources available to them to bring their claims or conduct the necessary provenance research to prove their claims. Not every looted work of art is a valuable Matisse. Most looted objects contain great sentimental value to the heirs of the families whose cultural heritage was assaulted by the Nazi regime.

Seventy years later we are still hearing about Nazi looted works being located in museums and private collections because not enough is being done to identify and return works of art stolen from Jews during the holocaust.

Jonathan PetropoulosProfessor of European History, Claremont McKenna College

It is rather difficult to assess how well the process of returning Nazi looted art is working in the United States.  I would say the results are mixed. It’s really a question of good news and bad news.

The good news is that beginning in the 1990s, a great deal of attention was focused on the subject of Holocaust victims’ assets.  This includes not only Nazi looted art, but money in Swiss banks, unpaid insurance policies, and real estate in Europe, among other kinds of property.  The American governement tried to address these issues, hosting the Washington Conference in December 1998 and creating a Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States (I was the research director for art and cultural property).  American museum directors made pledges to research their collections and to facilitate the return of looted works.  Auction houses hired experts to examine the works that passed through their hands.  And the U.S. legal system evolved in a way such that many Holocaust victims who were U.S. citizens could pursue justice in American courts (the case Altmann v. Austria, which involved six works by Gustav Klimt, went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the case could be tried in the United States–it ended up in arbitration in Austria with five works being returned).

The bad news is that much of the momentum of the 1990s was lost after the September 11th attacks.  Museums often have not studied their collections.  And when there are claims, museums and their lawyers often use “technical defenses.” such as the statute of limitations, laches, and the exclusion of evidence, in an attempt to defeat claims.  I do not think that museum officials who use these technical defenses are living up to the spirit of the Washington Conference Principles (the non-binding agreement that grew out of the 1998 conference).  It has been very difficult, and often very expensive, for Holocaust victims and heirs to pursue their stolen property in the U.S.

I am encouraged by the recent events.  The discovery of the Gurlitt cache–over 1,200 pictures in an apartment in Munich–attracted a great deal of attention in the U.S. (as it did in Europe), and the George Clooney film is also publicizing the issue.  The U.S. State Department re-appointed Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat to work on Holocaust era issues (and he was the one who led the American efforts in the 1990s).  Eizenstat is very good and effective as a diplomat and as a lawyer (and in other respects too).  So, there is reason to be encouraged.  The involvement of the U.S. Attorney in New York (Preet Bharara), and the Department of Homeland Security is also welcome news.

I give a great many lectures on the topic of Nazi art looting and there is both a strong interest in the subject among the American public, and also a widespread desire to do the right thing.  So, I remain optimistic that we will continue to make progress with the unfinished business of World War II.


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