01 July 2013

It has been 15 years since that fateful year of 1998: what do we have in 2013?

The American government prefers to let the market decide on what is fair and just for Holocaust victims of cultural plunder.

European governments are loath to challenge the cultural institutions that they subsidize directly and indirectly. By so doing, they legitimize the misappropriation of untold numbers of art objects and they prevent an impartial and scientific examination of the history of these objects which “ended up” in their basements and depots during and after the Second World War.

On the brighter side…

A growing number of curators and other art professionals have changed the way they work in American and European institutions when faced with problematic ownership histories for objects being accessioned or already in their collections—that’s reason enough to be guardedly optimistic.

“Art market players” are more aware than in the recent past regarding the complications arising from the trade in looted cultural assets. But that is all relative. Outside of Paris, London, and New York, that statement becomes moot. Moreover, the absence of verifiable statistics makes it nigh impossible to measure the result of such “increased awareness” because of the near impossibility of coming up with even a gross estimate of restitutions triggered exclusively by the art market’s due diligence efforts. Something to work towards for the sake of “transparency.”

Back to the dark side…

Fewer than five—yes, a number between 0 and 5—institutions of higher learning in the world—as far as one can tell—offer either intermittent or regular academic programs focused solely on provenance research. If universities, colleges, institutes—private and public—continue to be obstinate in their refusal to satisfy a growing demand for such programs, the only possible remedy is to create alternative programs that specialize in provenance research and its interdisciplinary corollaries. Where there is a will, there is a way!

There is no public policy--national or international—with which victims of plunder can assert their interests in seeking the recovery of their stolen cultural property.  It’s time to shame international non-governmental organizations that have repeatedly ignored calls to meet the needs of individuals, entities, and groups whose cultural assets have been and continue to be the targets of theft and plunder.

Some lawyers who call themselves “restitution lawyers” have never recovered anything on behalf of their clients, and yet… they command the respect of their peers in the legal profession.

After all these years, claimants still cannot rely on the international Jewish community to support their quest for restitution of stolen cultural assets. Exceptions are few and duly noted: the New York-based Claims Conference—although the Claims Conference does not handle individual art claims, it stands out as the principal advocate on a global scale for laws and policies that favor the return of looted cultural assets to their rightful owners. Oh yes! In Israel, there is a parastatal organization called Hashavah whose mandate for recovery of looted art only pertains to objects that are located in Israel proper. . And that’s about the size of it, folks.

Left standing are the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and the Commission for Art Recovery, both American-based organizations devoted in their specifically different ways to securing some measure of justice for claimants and to documenting cultural losses during the Holocaust. In the United Kingdom, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe marches on.

What is to be done?

Hashava Poster, Source: Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs