31 May 2011

The Hemer case or how a claimant does not want to be a claimant

It does happen. After all, we are what we are. Above all, human and highly imperfect, motivated by an infinity of whims and desires and concerns. Sometimes, what seems to be the right thing to do—restitution—is not perceived that way at all by the person who should be the happy recipient of such good fortune—the successful claimant.

In this case, as reported by Bloomberg News, Thomas Hemer, a current resident of the state of Nevada in the United States, lost a lengthy legal battle against the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Inc., (Claims Conference) over a set of Egyptian antiquities which his grandfather, a renown Egyptologist by the name of Georg Steindorff, had been forced to sell after the Nazis swept into power in Germany. Out of concern for the safety and preservation of his precious collection of antiquities, Steindorff agreed to sell his delicate cargo to the University of Leipzig.

That being what it is, the sale, under any circumstance, was a forced sale. In other words, Steindorff’s heirs were—and continue to be—the rightful heirs to a wrongful removal of their cultural property during the Nazi years.

After 1945, Leipzig ended up in the territory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Decades later, when the GDR broke into little pieces and was absorbed into the larger Federal Republic of Germany, all looted property for which claims had been filed that were located in the former territory of the GDR were transferred to the Claims Conference. And, awkwardly enough, not having ever wanted to be the custodians of restituted cultural property, the Claims Conference found itself embroiled in cultural claims, something it has always insisted does not fall within its purview. And yet…

Fast forward to this past month of legal wranglings and decisions in Germany over the Hemer/Steindorff hoard of antiquities housed at the University of Leipzig.

The Claims Conference, being what it is and doing what it must do, felt obligated to assert its claim over the cultural goodies which had been the subject of that forced sale in the late 1930s, regardless of Mr. Hemer’s feelings about it.

How weird can this be? This is not a novel occurrence since over the past decades Jewish organizations and their constituents have locked horns over the recoveries of looted assets and whose interest must prevail.

Now that the court decisions have come in, the Claims Conference is the club-footed current possessor of these antiquities which should have been in Mr. Hemer’s possession. That’s the point: he does not want them and he wants the University of Leipzig to have them so that they can continue to be studied and researched.

Think what you may here but there must be a rule of exception by which the claimant’s desires must be respected and abided by. After all, this is not like international law where the rights of nations supersede those of individuals. Must the interests of Jewish organizations supersede those of individual Jewish claimants? I should hope not.

The best possible way out of this Gordian knot is for the Claims Conference to restitute the items to Mr. Hemer and for Mr. Hemer to return them to the University of Leipzig if that’s what he wants to do. If the Claims Conference decides to sell the objects or to invoke even a partial return, it’s slipping down the slippery slope of no-return.  Hopefully, there is more to this story than meets the eye and has been revealed as of yet.  On the face of it, though, until proven otherwise, another measure of justice needs to be meted as outlined above.

A gentle reminder here: ironically and ever so gratefully, at a time when not a single Jewish organization expressed any interest or desire to invest in the creation of a looted art database, the Claims Conference did step in, threw its hat in the ring and agreed to launch into an adventure that has changed the face of looted art research forever.  Go to http://www.errproject.org/jeudepaume.