Claims against art museums and other institutions related to wartime Nazi plundering are likely to increase in the near future, a panel of experts agreed this week.
During a two-day conference on moral and legal issues related to the Holocaust at the Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, panelists discussing “Looted Art” detailed the means being used to identify and recover artworks and remedies to prevent their sale.
Other session topics included confiscated Jewish property, hidden Swiss bank accounts, the future of Auschwitz and the Allies’ moral obligation to warn of the Nazi terror.
The intention of the conference was to analyze some of the issues raised by Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat in a report issued by the U.S. government, “Allied Efforts to Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen and Hidden in Germany During World War II.”
The increase in art claims is part of the growing phenomenon of survivors, in the twilight of their lives, seeking compensation and reparation for funds and materials stolen from them by the rampaging Nazi war machine and its conspirators.
“American museums are in the news in a way they wouldn’t want,” said Constance Lowenthal, director of the World Jewish Congress Commission for Art Recovery. “When they think at all about the Holocaust, they aren’t thinking about plundered art. They have been caught unaware, and we have to confront them squarely.”
For many of the victims, artworks had more than sentimental value, said Lowenthal. They were a source of wealth that could be used to buy freedom.“Art crosses borders easily,” she said. “It’s a cash equivalent.The session took place at a time when the Museum of Modern Art here is embroiled in a dispute over two Egon Schiele paintings claimed by a Jewish family, and the Association of Art Museum directors has formed a task force to create a system to resolve ownership disputes.
Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) also is seeking to pass legislation that would establish methods to determine the origin of disputed works and return them to their rightful owners, while the Senate Banking Committee will hold hearings on the subject.
Among the panelists was Hector Feliciano, author of “The Lost Museum,” who spent eight years tracking down various artworks plundered by the Nazis. He uncovered more than 2,000 unclaimed artworks, prompting dozens of new claims.
“Searching can be very complex, but it is made easier by Nazi inventories made by experts,” said Feliciano. “Many were photographed. Some copies can be found in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.”
The trail of looted work is complicated by a system of barter used to acquire the most desirable works. “Hitler and Goering would trade a Picasso or a Matisse for a 13th century or 14th century German painter.”
Lawrence Kaye, an attorney and consultant who is active in art recovery, said old age and the complexity of legal proceedings stacked the odds against many of the claimants.
“Legal obstacles can be instrumental,” he said, noting that statutes of limitations can rule out any action.
Kaye suggested a movement to suspend the statute of limitations concerning plundered artwork.
“The declaration that any statute of limitations is not applicable to war crimes was passed by the [UN] General Assembly in 1968,” he said, “but the definition of war crimes did not include plunder.”
Kaye also called for courts to take a “creative approach” to dealing with such cases. “They have to adapt rules on a national level to make it a level playing field.”
Even U.S. troops were not above joining in the plunder, said Lowenthal, citing the recent case of Joe Tom Meador, a lieutenant who helped himself to several artifacts from a church in Quedlinburg, Germany, during the American occupation. His relatives were tried recently in Texas for trying to sell the materials after his death.
“The Quedlinburg treasure raised the question of how much more looted art is in the United States,” she said. “It is more than possible that other individual soldiers may have sent home objects they shouldn’t have.”
Lowenthal said her commission was striving to become a resource for both claimants and collectors. “We will try, with all these obstacles, to build the best comprehensive list of what was taken so that the art market can turn to us for help.”
The Cardozo conference was organized and chaired by Malvina Halberstam, a law professor and Holocaust survivor, and Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.
Participants included Daniel Goldhagen, author of the controversial best-seller “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”; Paul Volcker, chairman of the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons; Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein; and Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, Israel.
Volcker, head of the government-appointed committee investigating the role of the Swiss banks in aiding the Nazis and their looting of Jewish accounts, promised that his work — scheduled to end in 1997 — was nearing completion.
But Attorney Edward Fagan, who is pressing a class-action suit against the banks, blasted Volcker as “standing in the way” of hundreds of elderly Holocaust survivors who may not live to recoup their funds.
The Swiss banks have argued in court that the lawsuit should be dismissed in deference to Volcker’s investigation.
“They’re not going to finish in ’98 either,” Fagan said in an interview. “[Volcker] ought to get out of the way, or step behind us, be under the auspices of the court, let a judge use his committee and have a sword hanging over the banks if they don’t cooperate.”