Much piety and hot air at Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets

No binding agreements were reached and little effect on restitution is expected


Last month’s Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets held at the US State Department and the Holocaust Memorial Museum produced no binding agreements and is expected to have little effect on the processes of art restitution internationally.

Closed to the press, to Holocaust victims, and to many recognised experts on art restitution, the conference ended with the declaration of eleven principles intended to guide countries in identifying works of art and resolving disputes over ownership: “A moral commitment,” Undersecretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat called them in his concluding statement.

The points reflected similar guidelines issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) Task Force on Holocaust Era Art in June: intensified scrutiny of collections; the creation of extensive databases of wartime losses, and the use of mediation rather than litigation to resolve conflicts.

Delegates from France weathered charges from the World Jewish Congress (WJC) that French museums had no business holding art recovered from Germany after the war. The WJC has called for a Mauerbach-style auction of such works to benefit “the Jewish people” in France and in Holland.

Trophy art—works brought back to the USSR from Germany and other countries after the war—was left out of the discussion, although Russian delegates agreed to a limited opening of archives and conceded the possibility that art seized from “victims of fascism” might be considered for return.

During the conference, the US government announced the appointment of a US presidential advisory commission on Holocaust assets in the US, to be headed by Edgar Bronfman, president of the WJC. The commission’s mandate is to locate property looted from Jews during the Nazi era that is now in the US.

Critics called the conference “Holocaust-lite”, and warned that the State department’s emphasis on consensus reflected strong lobbying from the museums, dealers and collectors, as well as from foreign governments. Organisers stressed maintaining warm relations with delegations from Switzerland (a screening of the BBC documentary “Nazi Gold” was taken off the schedule), France and Russia. Inevitably, feelings were hurt. Most national delegations and museum directors opposed WJC efforts to organise public auctions of war loot. Privately, they ridiculed the notion of creating a war loot museum.

The Ukrainian delegation came to Washington to further its efforts to trace and recover drawings from the Lubomirski Collection, which vanished from the Lvov Museum during the war, some of them ending up in US museums. Mr Eizenstat’s response to the Ukrainian bid for his help was not altogether in the spirit of the conference, at which participants were urged to seek alternatives to litigation in recovering art. In a letter, Mr Eizenstat offered his advice to the Ukrainians vis-à-vis American museums: get a lawyer.

Unresolved issues

Should art looted during the Holocaust Era be returned to its owners or their heirs? The communiqué issued by the Washington conference failed to mandate this as a priority, only urging that disputes be resolved. If victims and their heirs are to be compensated, should they receive the actual work(s) of art or a cash settlement of equal or lesser value? A recent proposal offered by Ralph Lerner calls for a federally funded programme to compensate claimants who forgo litigation with cash amounts lower than the current market value of the art being claimed.

In the event that original owners of works of art looted during the Nazi era or their heirs cannot be found, should the works of art be auctioned off (as in the case of the Mauerbach Monastery auction in Vienna in 1995) for the benefit of “the Jewish people”? Critics argue that, in the case of Mauerbach, insufficient efforts were made to locate survivors or their heirs.

Should there be US legislation mandating that a purchaser of a work of art exercise due diligence in buying the work by investigating its provenance to ensure that the work was not stolen? Opponents have warned that such a law, considered by the US House of Representatives, would have a chilling effect on the art market.

Should international organisations provide funds for a “war chest” so that claimants can file lawsuits to recover works? Claimants and their lawyers argue that a lack of funds is the most important obstacle to recovering property.

What they said

Stuart Eizenstat Undersecretary of State, the highest-ranking US official to participate in the Washington conference “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. This will also lead to the removal of uncertainty in the world art market and facilitate commercial and cultural exchange.”

J. D. Bindenagel US State Department conference organiser“It isn’t a negotiating session and it’s not a question of government agreement.”

Ronald Lauder “It is time for museums to set the same standard for ownership that they expect of themselves for authenticity.”

Philippe de Montebello director of the Metropolitan Museum and chair of the task force on Holocaust Era Art of the Association of Art Museum Directors, in an interview with ABC television“One has to be conscious of the practicalities, of the legalities, of morality, and juggle them all together toward what one hopes is an ultimate truth in justice. There are no pure cases.”

Elan Steinberg executive director, World Jewish Congress“The notion that the French museums ultimately should benefit from the Nazi looting, something that the Nazis themselves, thank God, did not, is wholly unacceptable.

Willi Korte researcher of war loot claims, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project [on the failure to invite Holocaust victims to the conference] “If you have a couple of old Jewish ladies breaking out in tears, talking about how they were ripped of by the Nazis over the years and lost everything, you set a totally different tone for such a hearing or such a conference. That’s what Senator D’Amato did with all his hearings on the Swiss banks—the first one to speak was a claimant. And it’s difficult to then change the tone of such an event.” [On the closing statement of the conference]: “It’s basically one of those sex education guides that tells you everything that’s related to sex, but doesn’t talk about what actually goes on.”

The organisations

o World Jewish Congress: international group of Jewish organisations which pressured Austrians to hold Mauerbach auction and Switzerland into creating fund to compensate Jews with deposits in Swiss banks. Leaked “secret” list of Nazis and art dealers to press (see pp. 6-16). Supports auction of unclaimed Jewish-owned art to benefit Jewish communities. President: Edgar Bronfman. Executive director: Elan Steinberg.

o Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress: unit established by Ronald Lauder in January 1998 to locate art and list claims. According to its research in published European museum catalogues, this group has located some 1700 works of questionable provenance. The Commission for Art Recovery has also assembled “an electronic lost-and-found” database, which it operates jointly with the New York State Banking Department’s Office of Holocaust Property Claims. Executive director: Constance Lowenthal.

o Holocaust Art Restitution Project: group founded in Sept. 1997 to research claims. Originally affiliated with the Klutznick National Jewish Museum of B’Nai Brith in Washington, DC, the group has since split off from that institution and seeks funding. Chairman: Ori Soltes (co-founders are Marc Masurovsky and Willi Korte) Most recently, HARP has insisted that theft victims not be forced to accept cash settlements, rather than art, as compensation.

o Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD): the professional association for art museum directors in the US. Last June the AAMD met in Worcester, Massachusetts, and its task force on Holocaust Era Art, chaired by Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offered guidelines that advised museums to scrutinise their collections, consult databases on Holocaust-era losses, and pursue mediation rather than litigation to settle claims. The AAMD opposes legislation regulating the art market or mandating due diligence in art purchases.

o Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA): trade association of dealers in fine art and antiques based in Manhattan. Like the AAMD, it opposes any regulation of the art market on the State-wide or national level. In a recent policy statement, the ADAA urged its members not to trade in art that was looted by the Nazis during World War II.

o Project for the Documentation of Wartime Cultural Losses (The Documentation Project): a new effort “initiated to gather and make available information relating to works of art, archives, and other types of cultural property displaced as a consequence of war, focusing primarily on World War II. On its website, the documentation project is disseminating photographs of the Jeu de Paume installed with art looted from Jews by the Nazis. Upcoming projects include website catalogues of the Goering collection and of Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz. This organisation is currently seeking funding for its website ( and future academic projects.

o Rolf Wirtén a former minister in the Swedish government, is investigating the traffic in art and gold between Sweden and Hitler’s Germany and acquisitions by Swedish museums made during the war. Although a few names have been singled out (Felix Kersten, Himmler’s masseur; the Sankt Lukas Gallery in Stockholm) no illegal sales of works of art in Sweden have yet been discovered. The conclusions of the Swedish enquiry will be published next month.

o Conference convenor and funder: the US State Department, represented by Undersecretary Stuart Eizenstat

o The invited: Delegates from forty-five governments, including France, Austria, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Israel and Switzerland; non-governmental organizations including the World Jewish Congress, the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Art Dealers’ Association of America, the Art Loss Register, various museum directors (Met, National Gallery of Art, French museum system) and researchers.

o The uninvited: Holocaust victims; the media; experienced lawyers in the field, including Thomas Kline, the Washington lawyer who represented the Goodman family in its recently settled suit claiming Degas’ “Landscape with smokestacks” from Daniel Searle, a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago; Larry Kaye, New York claimants lawyer with substantial experience who now represents the Bondi family, heirs to the owner of a Schiele painting on loan to the Museum of Modern Art; Ralph Lerner, author of art-law textbook, lawyer for Daniel Searle, defendant in Goodman case, and author of a plan to compensate claimants who choose not to file lawsuits against museums that hold their families’ art; the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, a Washington research organisation that investigates provenances for claimants.

Active claims

Seattle, Rosenberg family v. the Seattle Art Museum The heirs to the Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg filed suit in August for the return of a 1928 Odalisque by Henri Matisse donated to the Seattle Museum of Art (SAM) in 1996 by the timber baron Prentice Bloedel. The Rosenbergs allege that the Nazis looted the picture from a bank vault in Libourne near Bordeaux in 1941, and it passed through the Jeu de Paume into the market. Bloedel bought the picture from Knoedler and Co. in 1954, on Knoedler’s word that the work had been in Matisse’s collection, when it had in fact been in the collection of the Rosenbergs. Citing AAMD guidelines advising mediation, SAM sought to mediate the dispute with Knoedler and the Rosenbergs, but Knoedler refused to join those talks. SAM’s position has been that it will not return the $3 million picture (“an asset held in trust for the people of Seattle”) until compensated by Knoedler, which it has sued. The gallery has countersued to dismiss the case, arguing that Seattle is not a proper place for it.

On loan to Boston Museum of Fine Arts The Rosenberg family is claiming that Monet’s “Water Lilies” (1904) was stolen from the dealer’s vault in Libourne in 1941 and ended up in the collection of the Nazi Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Listed in the French Musées Nationaux Recuperation (MNR, for unclaimed works returned from Germany after the war that are kept in the French museum system) it is held by the Museum of Caen (Normandy) and was on loan to Boston’s exhibition “Monet in the twentieth century”. It took reporters just twenty-four hours to discover the picture’s history, which led to charges that the museum was lax in researching the provenance of the works it borrows. Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director, sits on the AAMD’s Task Force on Holocaust Era Art.

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art Monet’s “Repos dans le jardin, Argenteuil” is being claimed by heirs of a non-Jewish family living in England who allege that it was looted by Soviet troops in Berlin in 1945.

On loan to New York, Museum of Modern Art Two paintings by Egon Schiele on loan to the Museum of Modern Art from the Leopold Foundation in Vienna were placed under sub poena by the Manhattan district attorney under the suspicion of being Nazi war loot, with objections from Austria, US museum directors, the US State Department and Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery. A court ruled against the prosecutor in the spring, and an appeal is now awaited. This case is thought to have generated much more of the international concern about Nazi-looted art in museums and private collections.

San Francisco, Schloss family Rembrandt “Portrait of an old man”, a painting bearing a Rembrandt signature, that once belonged to the collection of Adolph Schloss (looted by the Nazis in 1943) was ordered to be returned to Jean de Martini, an heir of the Schloss family living in Paris. The picture was seized by the FBI in 1996, and had been the subject of a dispute in bankruptcy court in San Francisco since the financial failure of Sidney Ashkenazie, the dealer whose firm had bought it at Christie’s in 1993 for $30,000. After reviewing the picture’s history and the evidence for its theft during World War II, a judge in San Francisco ruled that the picture was stolen property when Christie’s sold it in 1993, so it cannot be part of the bankruptcy estate that Ashkenazie’s creditors sought to divide. The creditors are now suing Christie’s for selling stolen property to Ashkenazie’s gallery in 1993

The Netherlands, collection of Jacques Goudstikker After failing to finalise a protracted settlement with the Dutch government on the level of compensation for the Goudstikker collection (much of which passed into the hands of Hermann Goering) , Marei von Saher, Jacques Goudstikker’s daughter-in-law, has filed suit in Holland for the return of more than 200 works of art from that collection now held in Dutch museums. The Dutch government’s position is that the case was settled decades ago.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Much piety and hot air'