04 November 2018

Washington Principle #11: A Critique

by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note: Due to the momentous nature of the upcoming international conference in Berlin, Germany, on November 26-28, 2018 and entitled "20 years Washington Principles: Roadmap for the Future," it would be worthwhile to revisit these Principles and to put them through a linguistic, methodological and substantive meat grinder, and see what comes out of this critique. There will be eleven articles, each one devoted to one of the Principles enacted in a non-binding fashion in Washington, DC, on December 3, 1998.]

Principle #11
Nations are encouraged to develop national processes to implement these principles, particularly as they relate to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership issues.

This principle, to put it mildly, translated into a big zero plus one. It escaped absolute zero because of Austria’s decision to pass an actual Art Restitution Act. However imperfect it may be, it’s a law, it’s been effectual, and it still exists.

The same cannot be said for the four other nations hosting a restitution committee of sorts focused on cultural claims—France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany never followed in the footsteps of the Austrians. Apparently, the stakes were sufficiently high for the Austrians to pass their law, prompted by the physical seizure of works of art by an iconic “national treasure” named Egon Schiele, while on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Seizure, sequestration, were the tools that provoked mayhem among Austrian lawmakers, politicians, and museum administrators to “act”. Does the same scenario have to unfold for other countries to pass a restitution law? The answer may unfortunately be yes.

The failure of Principle #11 underscores the overall failure of the legacy of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era assets of December 1998. Not one of the signatories to the Washington Principles saw fit, once he/she returned to their respective homeland, to set in motion a national debate on the notion of restitution of art objects looted during the Nazi era, which would lead to comprehensive legislation and/or decrees establishing some form of mechanism with which to address those claims. Not one.

To make matters worse and, perversely, ironic, those nations which are so anxious to recover their State cultural losses—Italy, Belgium, Poland, are standouts—refuse outright to return to the rightful owners art objects in their public collections which clearly have been proven to be looted, no questions asked, historical evidence on hand to support those claims. The double standard is brazen but real and continues to function unabated, despite international calls for these nations to honor restitution claims. To paraphrase government officials from those nations, they are happy to restitute the objects as long as the claimants don’t mind coming to their country to “visit” with the object while it is still on display in a museum collection.

The most important hurdle that these nations face when confronted with a restitution claim is how to de-accession these objects from State-run collections. Few of those nations have on their books a comprehensive de-accession law that extends to the return of objects claimed by individuals, as opposed to nations.

Principle #11 could be rewritten as follows:
Nations shall enact directives, laws and decrees as appropriate to implement these principles, particularly as they relate to the resolution of ownership issues. These directives or laws should include comprehensive de-accession procedures that apply to art objects looted or displaced during the Nazi era which are the subject of a restitution claim.