by Marc Masurovsky
[Editor's note: Due to the momentous nature of the upcoming international conference to be held 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.]
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.
On October 5, 2000, a declaration came out of an international forum 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 Principles but did not specify what constituted 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. What constitutes reasonable effort?
On June 30, 2009, at an International Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in Prague held under the auspices of the Czech Republic, its participants issued a declaration, called the Terezin Declaration . Among other things, the declaration reiterated the implicit value of the Washington Principles, whereby looted art and cultural property should be “returned to victims or their heirs” but added that such returns be framed “in a manner consistent with national laws and regulations to achieve a just and fair solution.” The ambiguity remains since it is not clear whether restitution is a “just and fair solution” or if “restitution” is a stretchable concept that includes the non-physical return of the claimed object in exchange of a financial settlement with the claimant.
If the return of cultural assets looted during the Nazi years should be consistent with national laws and regulations, most of the signatory countries in Washington, DC in 1998 and in Prague in 2009 have not yet passed any laws or decrees framing the process of restitution of Holocaust-era looted cultural assets. In fact, their courts and legislatures have repeatedly upheld the rights of current possessors against such claims. Moreover, those nations’ cultural policies share one thing in common: the de-accession of objects from State collections is not feasible. If it must be considered as a "just and fair solution", that decision must be brought up before the legislature and/or the competent ministries. In that context, a fair and just solution does not work in favor of a claimant but rather it upholds the sanctity of State-owned or controlled cultural property over the individual rights of claimants. Put simply, the claimants have no control over what is fair and just.
Another way of looking at the logic behind the Washington Principles is that its framers could never have reached a consensus over their issuance without gutting them from the outset, thus protecting the art market, private and public museums alike at the expense of the claimant class, perhaps viewed even in 1998, as a nuisance which already riled governments with legal assaults against the Swiss banking sector over the misuse of private Jewish assets on deposit in Swiss financial institutions.
In retrospect and in anticipation of future discussions, a Holocaust claimant seeking the physical return—restitution—of his/her lost property from the possessing institution, be it public or private, would never have agreed to the notion of ‘a just and fair solution’, if it were to be anything but restitution. On the eve of the November 26-28, 2018 Berlin Conference on the Washington Principles, it is fair to ask whether current possessors, for whom the Principles were framed, have been fair and just to Holocaust claimants? Current possessors are public and private entities
Principle #8 could be rewritten as follows:
If the pre-1933 owners of artistic, cultural and ritual objects confiscated, misappropriated, sold under duress and/or forced sales, subjected to other forms of illicit acts of dispossession by the Nazis, their supporters, profiteers and Fascist allies across Europe between 1933 and 1945 and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, are identified, steps will be taken expeditiously to initiate restitution proceedings or any other solution deemed just and fair by all parties concerned, according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case. In each and every case, the interests of the claimants will be placed on an equal footing with those of the current possessors.