Too little too late?

One of the biggest problems of looted art restitution is that there has been no central location in the world for claims.

One of the biggest problems of looted art restitution, according to insiders, is that there has been no central location in the world for claims. The New York State Banking Department's Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) comes the closest, assisting free of charge in handling claims and storing information on some 125,000 objects - paintings, drawings and sculptures. HCPO (, created in 1997, has helped return approximately $70 million in bank claims, more than $26m. in insurance claims, over $6m. in other assets, and has assisted in securing the return of 17 works of art. For 10 years of work, that doesn't seem to be an overwhelming number of victories. And a cursory look at the figures of restitutions from other sources demonstrated that looted art restitution is indeed a prickly issue. "Holland has given back more than 200 paintings, but they're all from one claimant," says author Marilyn Henry. "Austria has done maybe 20 different claims, England has done some, but you can't compare them. Some claims are stronger than others, some museums are more generous than others." Part of the reason for the dearth of successful claims is the late start. The issue of Holocaust-era art restitution was for all intents and purposes invisible for more than 50 years after the war. With the atrocities of the Holocaust decimating virtually every aspect of European Jewry, the issue of looted art had simply never come to the forefront either among activists, families or governments. "Other issues were on the agenda, and it wasn't considered to be of enough importance to rise to the top," surmises Naftali Lavie, head of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which is charged with aiding the reclamation of Holocaust-era assets. In the 1990s, a number of factors began to shed new light on the fact that art looted by the Nazis was now in the hands of other countries, among them the recovery of Jewish properties and documents in the former German Democratic Republic after the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the advent of Swiss bank claims, which quickly snowballed into claims for assets of other types. But the cataclysmic event which catapulted the Nazi-looted art story into worldwide headline occurred in 1998, thanks to then-Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau. An exhibition of artworks by Egon Schiele - on loan from the Leopold Foundation in Vienna - was just about to close at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, when two families claimed that two of the paintings had once belonged to Austrian Nazi victims. MoMA responded that it was obliged to return the paintings to the Leopold Foundation. Morgenthau, however, issued a subpoena to detain the paintings until ownership could be resolved. The New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the museum had the right and obligation to return the Expressionist paintings. One of the works, Dead City III (1911), was returned. But the other painting - Portrait of Wally (1912) - is still in storage in New York, at the center of a lawsuit in US District Court in Manhattan which has dragged on for 10 years. "When the Schiele was seized while it was on loan to MoMA, Nazi-looted art suddenly was seen as a criminal matter," said Henry. As a result, the floodgates opened. International conferences were organized, while some nations - notably Austria - began to review the Nazi-era history of paintings in their museums. Later in 1998, representatives from 44 countries convened in Washington to draft the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which pledged to help locate artworks that had been looted and not returned, and to investigate the wartime heritage of art collections around the world to determine if any works were looted. "The art world will never be the same in the way it deals with Nazi-confiscated art," Stuart Eizenstat, then undersecretary of state and head of the US delegation sponsoring the Washington conference, said at the time. "From now on, the sale, purchase, exchange and display of art from this period will be addressed with greater sensitivity and a higher international standard of responsibility. This is a major achievement which will reverberate through our museums, galleries, auction houses and in the homes and hearts of those families who may now have the chance to have returned what is rightfully theirs." HAVE THINGS really changed, though? The paltry numbers of returned art in the last decade point to either the non-implementation of the Washington Principles, or the great difficulty, as Henry says, of finding the needle in the haystack. The answer, it appears, is some of both. "There's absolutely not been enough done regarding the return of looted art. There have been lots of obstacles and it's still a very big issue," says MK Michael Melchior, chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, who has played an instrumental role in restitution issues. "Many countries, museums, and legal systems have been as forthcoming as they should. "In many ways, this is the last of the big issues regarding restitution which I think we are still on the surface of. That's because it's a very complicated issue of ownership, with many different interests and countries involved." But even before the legal wrangling of claims is dealt with, the other big obstacle is simply getting to the stage of a claimant being able to identify looted art that belonged to their family. "It's a terribly unfortunate realization that most finds have been serendipitous 'oh my God' moments," says Henry. "That happened in the MoMa case of Egon Schiele - what would have happened if the heir hadn't been at the museum? It also happened when friends of Claude Cassirer gave him a book on the artist Camille Pissarro. That is how he learned that the painting that had been hanging on his grandmother's living-room wall before he fled Germany was now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid." According to Avraham Roet, chairman of the Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of People Who Were Killed in the Holocaust Ltd., most of the art that's been returned over the last decade originally belonged to German Jewish collectors who were meticulous about numbering and documenting everything in their collection. "For a private individual, it's much more difficult because there's very little documentation," he said. "And most of the people who could actually recognize the pieces are dead or very old and were children at the time." For those private individuals, one of the ways to go about identifying and retrieving the art belonging to their family is go through a lawyer, like Tel Aviv's Joel Levi. "Most of our clients don't have family records about their art pieces. It's the work of the lawyer to go into the archives. Over the last 10 years, I've spent more time in dusty archives than I have in daylight," he laughs. "The easiest type of identification is the art that had been documented by the Nazis for the museum they had planned to start in Linz, Austria." Hitler had grand plans to transform his hometown of Linz into the Third Reich's art capital, where all the treasures of Europe would be exhibited. Major art collections throughout Europe were confiscated systematically, accompanied by other forms of looting, which included theft of works by Nazi soldiers and officers to give as gifts or for their own private collections, as well as forced sales of inventories from prominent art dealers. "They were meticulous and the whole history of each painting was accounted for. Out of the 6,000 paintings stolen for the Linz museum, over 4,500 have been returned thanks to the information the Nazis kept," says Levi. Another method that's proven effective is through a family's own records. "For example, a Polish art collector had assembled 6,000 objects and had a record for each one. If you turned one of his paintings on the backside, you'd find his initials and a number," says Levi. "The third way is on-line. Because of the Internet, auction houses today are very prudent before they put a painting on sale. Thus from time to time we find out about a painting which was earmarked for sale. Since the Washington Declaration in 1998, it's become known who's a scoundrel and who's honest. If it's a reputable auction house like Sotheby's or Christie's, then you can rely on them to do the right thing. If it's someone dubious, then you need to go to court to get an injunction in order to get the painting back." In addition to greater visibility provided by exhibitions and Internet sites, Marilyn Henry finds that the last hope for finding the rightful owners of the remaining looted art is greater accountability. "There's a lot of serendipity, a lot of artwork published in books. But to expedite the resolution of claims, there need to be generally understood international standards and an accessible panel or tribunal to look at all claims and make judgments. A lot of countries need to be reminded that they agreed to the Washington Principles, moral commitments that they made to locate and return Nazi-era stolen art," she says. "We're not talking about the pure application of the law, there's a moral element also. We're not talking about a stolen bicycle, we're talking about a painting that was on grandma's wall who died in the Holocaust. Traditional law is not equipped for these circumstances, so the moral element has to prevail."