31 January 2016

When is “just and fair” fair and just?

by Marc Masurovsky

It is difficult to pin down precisely the genesis of the concept known as “fair and just” or “just and fair” solution in matters pertaining to the restitution of art objects looted during the Holocaust. Who and when are almost impossible to trace.

A valid starting point is principle #8 of the “Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated art”. The “Washington Principles” were passed on December 3, 1998 at the close of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets.

“If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognizing this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case."

Two years later, on October 5, 2000, a declaration came out of an international forum on Holocaust issues held in Vilnius, Lithuania, which placed heavy emphasis on the search for fair and just solutions “to the return” of looted art and cultural property. It went a bit further than the Washington conference without getting into any specifics, diplomatie oblige, as to what would constitute a just and fair solution to a claim for restitution. Forum participants did ask that “every reasonable effort be undertaken" to “achieve the restitution” of looted cultural assets. Hence restitution {again, without being properly defined] was invoked in the same breath as “just and fair solution.”

Eleven years after the Washington Conference of December 1998, a similar conclave of 40 odd nations and international NGOs gathered in Prague under the auspices of the hosting government of the Czech Republic. The International Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets issued a declaration, called the Terezin Declaration on June 30, 2009. In it, one can find multiple references to “just and fair solutions” without understanding at all what they are and how to achieve them. They do stipulate, however, that the Washington Conference of December 1998 established the moral (and non-binding) principle whereby looted art and cultural property should be “returned to victims or their heirs in a manner consistent with national laws and regulations [emphasis added] as well as international obligations, in order to achieve a just and fair solution.” Unless I am completely mixed up here, I read this as meaning that the restitution of looted cultural property achieves a “just and fair solution.”

In the years following the 1998 conference in Washington, DC, where the Principles were formulated, the tendency was to sharpen the link between restitution and “just and fair” or “fair and just” solutions. And yet….the word “restitution” was not defined in these declarations. If it was to mean the physical return of the looted object to the rightful owner and thereby transfer of legal title away from the current possessor to the rightful owner, many art market players like auction houses and museums, as well as governments, have violated the principle of what is just and fair by insisting that “just and fair” in all likelihood means upholding the good faith of the current possessor and asking—no, convincing—the claimant that financial compensation of some sort or another is the best result that can be achieved in the spirit of the Washington Principles of 1998. Best to invoke the trinity of Washington, Vilnius and Terezin in order to enshrine the physical return of the object.

Is that really what was meant or inferred at Vilnius in 2000 and at Prague in 2009? The answer is inconclusive, because most of the drafters and endorsers of these declarations were well aware that “national laws and regulations” would interfere with the actual physical restitution of the claimed object, especially in areas where the Idol of Good Faith rules all.

Hence, the apparent contradiction between settlements and the various declarations of Washington, Vilnius and Terezin disappears by stressing that the return of the object should be consistent with national laws and regulations. The emphasis of "fair and just" shifts in favor of the rights of the current possessor at the expense of those of the claimant.

"Dedham from Longham", by John Constable

An interesting twist to the Washington Principles involves a painting by John Constable being claimed by Alain Monteagle, representative of the Jaffe family’s restitution claim. The painting is presently located in the Fine Arts Museum of la Chaux de Fonds which is in the canton of Neuchatel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Historically, the Swiss federal government has always deferred to local governments’ discretion in the way that they manage or dispose of their cultural assets. If one should apply to the letter the principles enshrined in Washington and reiterated in Vilnius and Terezin, the museum at La Chaux de Fonds, which is municipal, should return the painting to Mr. Monteagle. However, if the return is subject to the “national laws and regulations” of Switzerland and the canton of Neuchatel, as well as the municipality of La Chaux de Fonds, Mr. Monteagle does not stand a chance, because civil law in Switzerland worships the good faith of the current possessor and no foreigner can come into Switzerland and claim what he/she feels is his/her rightful property, at least not since 1949, with a notable exception last year.  At least, that is the impression that we are left with, if history serves as a valid reference point.

La Chaux de Fonds
Interestingly, in a 3-page report issued in January 2014, the Swiss Federal Office of Culture commented that “just and fair solutions must be sought—both when it has been possible to trace the victims and when identification has proved impossible.”

Hence, the principles of Washington, Vilnius and Terezin are not helpful in the real world and, more often than not, municipal governments and their national representatives heap scorn on them so as to safeguard their “cultural property.” If Mr. Monteagle wants his painting back, he has to wage total war against the Swiss government, the city council of La Chaux de Fonds which has oversight of its fine arts museum and the cantonal authorities in Neufchatel. To be successful, the battle for restitution must involve all aspects of civil society and should be waged inside and outside the legal system in order to "achieve a just and fair solution" consistent with Washington, Vilnius and Terezin.