08 November 2016

Pondering “flight assets”-Fluchtgut

by Marc Masurovsky

Not to be flip, but “flight assets” is an odd expression. Its more appropriate use applies to aviation, airplanes, anything related to a state of being in the air, hopefully in a steel structure with wings, a tail and engines.

Assets that fly…

Assets don’t leave by themselves. They require human conveyance. And the implication is that they have to cross a border, otherwise why would they be “flight assets”?

The question then becomes: where are they coming from and where are they headed?

Assets can consist of very different elements, but the word connotes value. If we are speaking in historical terms, the expression has been almost exclusively applied to the Nazi era, from 1933 to 1945.

The word “flight” also embodies the notion of “fleeing," of running away from something terrible, something that is sure to cause the owner great harm and distress. Assets fleeing? Well, they have no soul so they cannot “flee”, but they can be made to cross a border quickly in the context of a distressing set of circumstances for their owner.

In 1933 Europe and subsequent years, there were valid reasons to flee from National Socialist Germany. We do not know the exact numbers but before Hitler came to power there were those who smelled something rotten taking hold of the body politic in the dying Weimar Republic. And they left with more than their shirt and coat on their backs. So, the expression “flight assets” does not apply to them.

Come January 30, 1933, the situation changed dramatically. An anti-Semitic, racialist government had just reached the pinnacle of political power in Germany. It took some time to enforce nationwide an ideological program that was meant to exclude entire swaths of the populace. In the chaos that ensued and enveloped millions of lives, those born in the Jewish faith and those virulently and explicitly opposed to the Nazi movement, felt the noose tightening around their necks. If you had the means to flee, you did so. If you had valuables that you wanted to place in a safe place, you packed them and shipped them to a safe destination. In 1930s Europe, there were a fair number of places that were considered safe. Switzerland was one of them. It’s next door to Germany, its financial institutions welcomed all kinds of assets. The newly-established Banking Secrecy Laws made it possible to cloak one’s identity away from prying eyes.

We have now framed the contours of “flight assets” as they apply to valuables belonging to people in distress, fearing for their safety and well-being, aware of the restrictions preventing them from functioning as empowered citizens of a country-Germany-that is now denying them the right to earn their livelihood and live a good life as Germans. They are of Jewish descent, the victims of a virulent anti-Semitic program that aims to rid the new Germany of “Jewish influence”, whatever that might entail, but in the initial years after Hitler’s ascent to power, hundreds of thousands of German citizens of the Jewish faith wondered what lay in wait for them.

For those who sought asylum elsewhere, like in Switzerland, they needed to survive. Fired from their jobs, losing their homes, forced to sell belongings at any price, they secured some valuable assets and shipped them abroad where they would use them as sources of badly-needed income until they could relocate and live in relative peace, restart their broken lives.

These German citizens of Jewish descent were fleeing a desperate and threatening environment to their persons. Are the valuables that they sold in Switzerland to support themselves to be considered as “flight assets”? In other words, had they not been threatened by the New Order/Neue Ordnung in Nazi Germany, would they have shipped those valuables abroad, including to Switzerland, not as long-term investments, but as short-term fungible assets to be realized so as to sustain the equivalent of a subsistence wage while reflecting on an uncertain future? Doubtless, the answer is negative. “Flight assets” are short-term fungible assets whose realization helped the owners to survive.

So, here’s the rub: there are many people, especially in the art world and in government circles in European countries and even in North America, who honestly believe that persecution stops when the fleeing refugee crosses the border into some kind of nirvana. There is this notion that “flight assets” do not exist because the refugee sells them without any immediate pressure from the authority that propelled her to flee in the first place. Hence, there is no reason why a valuable, in this case, a work of art, should be returned to the person who sold it as a “flight asset” because she did not have a gun pointed at her head in order to sell it.

To that assertion, one might respond: would she have sold the painting in the first place had she not been forced to flee to such a haven as Switzerland? Would she have fled in the first place, had there been no immediate threat to her person? The same argument, by the way, applies to all neighboring countries—Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, even the United Kingdom, Austria (for a short time only), the United States? Canada? What about Italy? And Spain? And Portugal? Anywhere?

Let’s suppose that our Jewish refugee shipped in an understandable panic several valuable works of art, expensive jewelry, stocks and bonds, bearer shares, and other fungible goods, to the United States. She was able to make her way west with the little that she could carry with her. If she left right after Hitler’s rise to power, she would have been able to take more than the clothes on her person and a suitcase packed with goodies. But that did not last long. Soon thereafter, crates were stuck in freight forwarding houses on orders from Reich authorities, bank accounts were frozen, excessive levies were imposed on departing German citizens. One had to resort to very creative scenarios to send out “flight assets” to foreign havens. Scenarios that often involved accomplices, non-Jewish accomplices. In many instances, these go-betweens, if motivated by lucre, could earn significant sums helping to smuggle these “flight assets” into safe havens outside of Nazi Germany.

What if our refugee sold her “flight assets” once she reached New York, Boston, or even Toronto, or Montreal? Would we still consider these assets as “flight assets” and therefore restitutable? If we are faithful to the definition that we laid out above, it does not really matter where those “flight assets” ended up because it does not alter the circumstances under which they were shipped in the first place.

If we decide that “flight assets” belong in the same category as “duress” and “forced sales,” we are obligated to consider them as items subject to restitution or compensation for the same reason as assets sold under “duress” in Nazi Germany or in territories occupied or annexed by the Third Reich.

Last but not least, price should have nothing to do with the realization of a “flight asset” or a sale under “duress” at a “forced sale” and cannot be used as a reason for denying restitution to the aggrieved party seeking the return of the “flight asset.” It is the circumstance under which the asset is sold which should determine whether or not this asset should be restituted to the person or her family, obligated to sell it in order to survive.

In the constantly contentious debate over restitution of Nazi looted art, a “flight asset” is a fungible asset which has been shipped across state borders to a safe place by an individual under severe distress in her place of residence whose government has imposed threatening, discriminatory, restrictive measures upon her as a result of her faith and beliefs. This dire state of affairs has compelled this individual to seek refuge outside the borders of her native land and to use whatever valuables she was able to ship or transfer to her new home as a short-term source of revenue to allow her to survive until she figured out what her next move would be.

Switzerland is not the only country that received “flight assets.” That thought is absurd through and through. The “flight asset” could end up anywhere, and could be sold anywhere as long as it served the purpose of providing critical means of subsistence to the persecuted owner.