24 May 2015

A quick meditation on the meaning of restitution

by Marc Masurovsky
An aged claimant recovered earlier this week what, for the most part, is a painting by an artist whose ratings in today’s hyper-inflated market has reached astronomical proportions. That cannot be blamed on the claimant. The painting is by Max Liebermann, “Two Riders on a Beach”. The claimant is the Toren family. If you are not familiar with Max Liebermann, he is known as the Master of German Impressionism. Many of his works were stolen, misappropriated or confiscated by Hitler's government. Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of the most notorious art dealers and collectors of the Nazi era, loved Liebermann's works and came into possession of the Toren family's "Two Riders on a Beach." His son, Cornelius Gurlitt, kept the painting until his death and its discovery by the German government. On a historical footnote, it took the German government two years to return the painting to the Torens since its discovery was made public in late 2013.

David Toren, the claimant, is now 90 years old and is blind. Several days ago, Mr. Toren explained why he decided to sell the painting whose proceeds would be enjoyed by others. He is at an advanced age and cannot appreciate the painting that he recovered because he is blind, except through scent and touch and hearing others describe it for him. What good does that do, you might ask?

To those of you who are upset because he chose to sell the painting and who think that, once again, restitution of Holocaust-era cultural assets is all about making a quick million, think again. The point of restitution--the physical act of returning a stolen object to its rightful owner--is to mend the broken chain of ownership, a chain that was ruptured and torn asunder by anti-Jewish policies promulgated and enforced by the National Socialist government of Adolf Hitler between 1933 and 1945. The Nazi expansionist and extermination-driven agenda devastated continental Europe in more ways than one. Above all, property was forcibly and illegally removed from Jews because Nazis did not think that it was right for Jews to own property, a lame excuse to misappropriate their assets, especially financial, corporate, intangible (apartments, houses and buildings), and cultural (paintings, works on paper, decorative objects, musical instruments, and the list goes on….).

Mending the chain of ownership, recovering legal title of ownership to the claimed object, is as close to justice as a claimant will ever get to place a salve on a historic wound that stretches back seventy-five years. That’s a long time to carry an open wound that cannot heal completely. Hence, welding back together the links of that chain of ownership torn asunder by hatred, resentment, and unabashed cruelty and debasement, institutionalized across Europe, carries within it the kind of symbolism that you and I cannot even begin to appreciate and comprehend. Loss of family and loved ones is impossible to mend. How do you fill the emptiness within you created by your neighbor’s hatred towards you because of what you are?

Back to the restitution.

Once the claimant recovers the restituted item, it is none of our business what he or she does with it. It has become a private matter. We have no say in other people’s private lives, an assertion contradicted by the ever present intrusion of smartphones, social media, recording and eavesdropping devices, search engines, and what nots of the digital, electronic age which permeate our daily lives and give us the wrong idea that we are entitled to pry into other people's lives and to judge what a claimant should do with his/her recovered assets. Once more, it’s none of our business what Mr. Toren does with his painting.

Yes, in a perfect world in which none of us live except in a collective hallucination fueled by max distribution of controlled substances (Aldous Huxley's soma), we would be able to suggest to all the families of Nazi victims and their lawyers how to dispense of their restituted goods. But that’s not how the system works, not now anyway.