“The Jewish people should be heirs to heirless art” says Knesset member, as plans are made to return Nazi-loot to rightful owners

Christie’s and Sotheby’s to help with provenance research projects


At an international conference held in Lithuania last month, Christie’s announced that it has helped raise $500,000 for opening up Nazi documentation which is in Russian archives, while Sotheby’s is to assist the Council of Europe in setting up a central website on looted art. These moves reflect the auctioneers’ growing concerns over the problem of war loot.

The International Forum on Holocaust Era Looted Cultural Assets, held in Vilnius 3-5 October, was a follow-up to the important Washington conference two years ago. Thirty-seven nations signed the final communiqué, including members of the Council of Europe and the US.

The most sensitive issue addressed in the communiqué was the fate of works of art which had belonged to Jewish victims who had died and left no heirs, although there was no agreement on the right solution. Israeli Knesset member Colette Avital told the forum that in these cases, “it should be established that the Jewish people, and its representatives, will become the natural heirs.” She then added pointedly, “we suggest that the next conference takes place in Jerusalem”, a reference interpreted by some to be a suggestion that heirless works might go to Israeli museums. The Czech delegation reported that 66 paintings in their National Gallery which had belonged to heirless Jewish owners are now in the process of being transferred to the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Representatives of the art trade attended, with Zurich dealer Walter Feilchenfeldt addressing the forum as president of the Confederation Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d’Art (CINOA). Speaking as someone who “although not directly a Holocaust victim, but close enough to feel a victim myself”, he warned about the dangers of “unnecessary regulations”. Mr Feilchenfeldt added that he opposed placing the burden of proving that works of art were not looted on the trade, as well as the use of the term “cultural asset” being applied to “decorative items which are not of museum quality.”

Gilbert Edelson of the Art Dealers Association of America agreed that his members “have a moral obligation to cooperate in [provenance] research and to respond to inquiries for specific information whenever it is possible to do so.” Nevertheless, he added that the innocent purchaser of works later discovered to have been looted “has some rights”—particularly when claimants had not acted with due diligence, by registering a loss or consulting the standard published catalogues.

Christie’s announced that it had helped raise more than $500,000 from two private American donors, Edgar Bronfman (president of the World Jewish Congress) and Ronald Lauder (chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ Commission for Art Recovery and also chairman of New York’s Museum of Modern Art). This money will be used to help provide access to archives in Russia which contain documents seized from Nazi Germany during the war, such as the papers of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), which collected works for Hitler’s Führermuseum in Linz. The donation was welcomed by Moscow ministry of culture official Viktor Petrakov, and follows Russian legislation last May paving the way for Holocaust victims to institute claims. Acceptance of the donation is positive evidence that the Russians really intend to make this important documentation available.

US deputy secretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat described the Christie’s-assisted venture as a major step forward, which should lead to “opening the greatest treasure trove of previously unidentified Nazi-looted art and archives from Nazi Germany.” He added: “In discussions last week in Moscow, senior officials of the Russian Federation, Russian museums and a private foundation expressed strong support for this cooperative effort. This is a great breakthrough. We hope that this positive action by the Russian Federation will be followed by similar action in other countries in regard to the opening of Holocaust-era archives.”

Sotheby’s promised to assist with the creation of a Council of Europe-backed website which will provide a central reference point for claimants and investigators searching for Nazi-confiscated art. Initially the Council of Europe had wanted to establish a central register on the web, containing all the relevant information, but this would have been very slow to set up and expensive. It was therefore eventually agreed that there should be a central portal with links to other national and non-governmental sites. Sotheby’s is putting an undisclosed sum of seed money into the venture, as well as technical expertise gained from its own internet operations.

The forum’s setting in Vilnius was a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. The city’s Jewish population was 90,000 before the war; now it is just 2,500. Delegates attended a remembrance ceremony in the Paneriai forest, outside the capital, where most of the Jews were shot. On the eve of the forum, the Lithuanian parliament had also made a gesture of reconciliation by voting to return hundreds of recovered Torah scrolls to Jewish communities around the world. Attention will now be turning to Washington: next month the US Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets is expected to publish its long awaited report.

The Vilnius Declaration

All governments should “undertake every reasonable effort to achieve the restitution of cultural assets looted during the Holocaust.”

Governments, museums and the art trade are asked to “to provide all information necessary to such restitution.”

All governments should “maintain or establish a central reference and point of inquiry to provide information and help on any query regarding looted cultural assets.”

The Forum “recognises the urgent need to work on ways to achieve a just and fair solution to the issue of Nazi-looted art and cultural property where owners, or heirs of former Jewish owners, individuals or legal persons, cannot be identified; recognises that there is no universal model for this issue; and recognises the previous Jewish ownership of such cultural assets.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“The Jewish people should be heirs to heirless art” says Knesset member'