Retrieving Art Stolen By Nazis a Tough Task
The Holocaust claimed about 6 million Jewish lives during World War II. Survivors not only endured the loss of loved ones, but also lost billions in assets looted by Nazis — including valuable pieces of art.
Ori Soltes, the Goldman Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts at Georgetown and attorney Tom Kline said the odds of owners or heirs recovering paintings stolen by Nazis are slim.
“It’s like restitution roulette, ” said Kline, a partner at Andrews Kurth LLP — a law firm specializing in art and cultural property litigation. “Whether you get it back depends on where you find it.”
Soltes and Kline spoke at an April 7 discussion on “Final Restitution: Recovering Art Stolen by Hitler,” sponsored by Students Against Looting Valuable Antiquities — a Georgetown Endeavor (SALVAGE) and the Jewish Law Students Association in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 11.
The two examined the cultural, historical and legal issues surrounding the recovery of art stolen by the Nazis. They explained how Nazis devised a plan to purge European museums of what they viewed as “degenerate” art – works unfinished, abstract, by Jewish artists or displaying Jewish subjects.
“That could be [Pablo] Picasso’s cubism or anything with a Jewish connection,” Soltes said. “So, a Rembrandt in a Jewish context would be worthy of destruction, and other types of Rembrandts would be worthy of admiration.”
Under the “policy of plunder,” Nazis to confiscated “acceptable” paintings from European museums and private collections. Works were often kept by Nazi officials or displayed in German museums.
Rough Road of Recovery
Aside from attempting to locate artwork, claimants must contend with different laws around the world that limit the time for recovery and allow good-faith purchases by people unaware of the stolen status, the Kline explained.
While an Allied Declaration of 1943 and U.S. military law attempted to provide restitution or return of the objects immediately following World War II, Kline said a “valley of amnesia” existed during the second half of the 20th century along with secrecy and a lack of diligence on the part of buyers to investigate whether their treasures may have been stolen.
That secrecy is dissipating. The speakers said that a number of conferences in the late 1990s have shed light on the legal and moral implications surrounding stolen Nazi art. The 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets, for example, has tried to provide solutions to the problems surrounding restitution.
“The idea is to get the information out there, to encourage donors to make their claims, and try to have [them resolved],” Kline said.
Michael Goldman, Jewish chaplain at the Law Center, introduced the discussion between Soltes and Kline, and pointed out that time doesn’t act as an ally for art recovery.
“While the moral decision is incontestable between, say, Nazi looters and the families who had owned the works of art,” he said, “it becomes much trickier when 50 or more years have intervened — statutes of limitations have run out — and there are a number of truly good-faith purchasers in between. … It will take people of good will and perhaps the spotlight of public exposure to help us address these ongoing conflicts.
— Ann W. Parks