|Absurdity funeral, Francisco Goya|
No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Douglas Davidson,
is no exception.
Davidson’s highly anticipated delivery at the “Fair and Just Solutions” International Symposium held in The Hague, Netherlands, on November 27, 2012,
was cryptically dubbed “New Developments.” Fitting irony: the symposium was held at the Peace Palace in The Hague.
What new developments might have arisen in American government circles which had eluded most specialists and “insiders” in the contentious field of restitution of art stolen during the Holocaust and the Nazi years? It could certainly not be the creation of a US Commission on Looted Art, since the person who gave rise to this idea was former Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat,
envoy extraordinaire on all matters pertaining to the Holocaust since the Clinton years.
The idea for a US Commission on Looted Art was first announced at the end of the Holocaust-Era Assets Conference held in Prague in late June 2009. This conference, which produced its own declaration—The Terezin Declaration
—was the “follow-up” conference to the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets held in Washington, DC, in early December 1998, which brought us the now-ubiquitous and oft-cited Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.
Since the Fall of 2009, the US Department of State, in concert with Ambassador Eizenstat and then Special Envoy on Holocaust Issues, Christian Kennedy, organized a series of “town meetings” whose purpose was to foster dialogue amongst all parties interested in the creation of a commission which would provide resolution mechanisms for claims filed by individuals whose families had suffered cultural losses at the hands of the Nazis and their Fascist allies more than sixty-five years ago and who wished to recover their lost property from American museums.
The sense one gleaned from these town meetings was that Ambassador Eizenstat was intent upon keeping his word—the creation of a US Commission on Looted Art—no matter what this Commission looked like and what it actually accomplished, as long as he could not be blamed for having made an empty promise.
The body language during those town meetings was unmistakable: any US Commission on Looted Art would require the approval of American museums, their directors and legal advisors in order to pass muster. That alone signified that this Commission might end up being a dead letter owing to museums’ steadfast refusal to acknowledge the validity of Holocaust-era claims for looted objects in their collections.
As for Ambassador Eizenstat, his constant references to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets (PCHA) from 1998-2000, the London Conference on Looted Gold of the late 1990s, created the impression in those town meetings that his ideas about Holocaust justice had not evolved since 1998. During those meetings, Eizenstat would make continual reference to the so-called International Committee of Eminent Persons, a group of … well, eminent persons who sat around and pontificated about matters which involved complex historical evidence, complex forensic evidence, and far more complexity than anyone might be ready and willing to absorb in order to decide the fate of a family’s claims for property lost during the Holocaust.
The model proposed by Ambassador Eizenstat—occasional meetings of such a grouping of eminent persons who would be asked to review “meritorious” cases brought before them with respect to looted art in American museums—required that the reviewers of such cases be impartial and not at all connected with the issue of looted art and its postwar restitution. That suggestion alone even raised the hackles of American museum lawyers who rightfully argued in tandem with art restitution lawyers, specialists, researchers, and claimants, that the adjudication process for looted art claims would be badly served if the fate of those cases rested on a poor understanding of historical research.
Good research alone was—is, and will always be—the “ad minima” guarantee for any "reasonable" approach to a looted art case. For that to happen, any US commission on looted art worth its pound of salt would have to rely heavily on professional, methodical, and empirical historical research into the circumstances of Holocaust-era thefts and misappropriations of art objects from Jewish homes and businesses.
In this time and age, research budgets do not fall within the purview of the US government, especially when the day-to-day business of members of Congress and Federal officials is to slice and dice budgets. Holocaust research? Forget about it…
Hence, the financing model for a hypothetical US Commission on Looted Art would require some form of partnership with the private sector or a system—as yet undefined—of grant-making that would allow for case-based research to occur as a precondition to reach any decision on a looted art case brought before such a Commission.
At the time of its death, the US Commission on Looted Art, as described by Ambassador Davidson at The Hague, was supposed to consist of two branches—research and adjudication—both separate and distinct so as to preserve their integrity and impartiality. That’s as far as anyone went. At least, that’s as much as we will know for a long time to come.
On Tuesday, November 27, 2012, shortly before noon, Ambassador Davidson became the inevitable bearer of bad news, announcing to a surprised and somewhat puzzled international audience that the US government was hoisting the white flag of surrender on the mast of its errant flagship, the "USS Restitution", thereby abandoning all efforts to promote a government-supported mechanism to resolve looted art cases.
Quoting Cicero frequently, Ambassador Davidson waxed eloquently at the
Commission’s funeral for an idea that, like the late Generalissimo
Francisco Franco of Spain, took a very long time to die.
to say, many delegates from the five standing committees (British,
French, Dutch, Austrian, German) dealing with art restitution matters in
Western and Central Europe expressed their dismay over the American
refusal to share in this unprecedented international effort—however
limited—to heal the wounds of genocide by providing mechanisms to allow
claimants to be heard and to receive justice-either through compensation
What does the future hold?
For families seeking redress in the United States for a historical crime committed within the framework of a genocide, the verdict is: lengthy, tedious and bankrupting legal proceedings in the complex and often unfriendly American legal system which worships private property.
Two questions to consider:
1/ does this decision to abandon the creation of a US Commission on Looted Art mean that the US government is likewise forgoing any public efforts to address historical crimes of cultural plunder? Does this mean that cultural plunder is, once more, relegated to the category of an unfortunate plague of history during which one must “roll with the punches” thus returning the civilized world to its colonial past--somewhere us somewhere in the 19th century?
If so, this bodes badly for the fate of S.2212, which is currently pending in the US Senate, a bill that, if passed, will allow looted art to enter the United States, unfettered by legal claims for the return of those stolen objects, while on US territory. Since the US presents a more favorable climate under which such claims can be filed, the passage of S.2212 will be the last nail in the coffin of restitution efforts as we know them in the United States.
2/ what role did American Jewish organizations play in the decision to abandon the idea of a US Commission on Looted Art? Now that the post-mortem of the Commission’s demise is upon us, someone will have to examine the critical role played by the organized American Jewish community in ignoring and oftentimes opposing restitution of art looted during the Holocaust years. In fact, one could rightfully argue that, notable exceptions like the Claims Conference aside, the systemic refusal of the leadership of the American Jewish community to defend the rights of Jewish families to recover art stolen from them during the Nazi years and the Holocaust has made it possible for American politicians to cast the principle of cultural restitution as marginal and irrelevant. Hence, if there is blame to assign—this is not an enjoyable assignment—it must be spread equally between Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat and the leadership of the organized American Jewish community.
Links to the five standing committees in Europe which address art restitution matters:
Austria: Beirat of the Commission for Provenance Research
France: Commission pour l'indemnisation des victimes de spoliations
Netherlands: Dutch Restitutions Committee
United Kingdom: Spoliation Advisory Panel