|Brookdale Center, Cardozo Law School|
It featured, among other things, a panel on "Nazi-Era Looted Art: Research and Restitution." The speakers included one person from the art trade, Lucian Simmons, a vice president at Sotheby's; Larry Kaye, of the law firm of Herrick Feinstein who co-chairs its art law group; Inge van der Vlies, who is a senior official of the Dutch Restitution Committee in Amsterdam; Lucille Roussin, co-organizer of the conference and head of the Holocaust Restitution Claims Practicum at Cardozo Law School.... and myself, as co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and the only non-lawyer and historian in the assembly.
|Howard Speigler, left, and Lawrence Kaye|
Source: The New York Times via Fred R. Conrad
|Inge van der Vlies|
Source: Raad Voor Cultuur
Being the historian of the group, my task was to give context to the issue of restitution. I opened up the subject writ large, going back to the Hague conventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which sought to define protections for civilians and their property while armies duked it out near their fields. My point, which is not popular, is that plunder of works and objects of art motivated by ideological, political, racial, and ethnic considerations are characteristic of the first half of the 20th century, starting with Armenia, going through the muddle of the First World War, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, the Anschluss, the establishment of a Nazi protectorate in then-Czecholovakia, the disappearance of Poland, the Nazi invasion of Western and Northern Europe, and the subsequent onslaught against the Soviet Union and southeastern Europe. Not much time left to discuss the fundaments of restitution except to indicate that market considerations reigned supreme in the immediate postwar which compelled the US government in 1946 to liberalize the art trade by quickly eliminating wartime restrictions on the imports of cultural objects into the US, without knowing what objects might be of illicit origin. The US and its allies shut down art claims in and around 1948 in their respective zones of occupation in Germany and Austria, thereby shifting the claims process to national governments in Europe and the Americas.
Howard Spiegler, Larry Kaye's alter ego at the Art Law Group of Herrick Feinstein, delivered a genuinely entertaining lecture over lunch where he took on the critics of art restitution litigation, especially aimed at high-revenue firms such as his and Larry's. Point well taken. Someone has to do the work. The problem since 1945? There is still no national and/or international mechanism by which claimants who cannot afford to pay legal fees can be guaranteed a satisfactory procedure through which to articulate their losses and seek redress. It's now been 66 years since the end of the Second World War and chances are that nothing will ever happen.
The main disappointment in an otherwise productive conference was the inability of the conveners to make a link between Holocaust-era losses and cultural property disputes in the postwar era, and also to address the confusion and complications arising out of the distinction between cultural property and other types of art objects and works of art. Currently countries such as Italy are deliberately placing Holocaust- and World War II-era losses under the roof of cultural property and cultural patrimony, thus treating a painting by Claude Monet on the same basis as an antique urn. The end result? the likelihood that the object, even if restituted, cannot leave Italian territory without special permits. Something akin to what takes place in Austria with works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and in France, with any masterpiece produced on French territory.
Hopefully, at some future forum, someone will take the brave step and challenge these artificial barriers that separate antiquities from the rest of artistic production.