Panel on Nazi Art Theft Fell Short

The New York Times 3 March 2003
Ralph Blumenthal

Clinton administration commission on Nazi plunder failed to examine critical records pertaining to traffic in looted art before, during and after World War II, some leading scholars who worked on the inquiry now say.

The experts, historians and economists who worked from 1998 to 2000 on the panel, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, say that as a result it came up with a report that broke little new ground and failed to come to grips with the question of how much stolen art passed through American controls.

Several of the panel's leaders defend the work or say that shortcomings were results of lack of time, but in many quarters the report is perceived as a lost opportunity to provide definitive answers to questions that in many ways are being asked more now than anytime since the days just after World War II.

"The tents were folded much to the chagrin of many of us," said former Representative Benjamin A. Gilman, Republican of New York, and one of the commission's 21 members. "I felt we should have been doing much more than we did."

Objections to the panel's work were so strong that some staff members said they contemplated writing a minority report. Their comments, and similar ones from leading experts in the field, were not publicly expressed when the commission reported its findings and came out in recent interviews about the search for missing Nazi plunder nearly 60 years after World War II.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, the former deputy Treasury secretary who urged the panel's creation and served as a member, acknowledged that the report did not go as far as he had hoped. "Lack of time was a major problem," he said. He added that the panel's mandate had proved too narrow and that its work had fallen short of what similar inquiries had uncovered in Europe.

The chairman of the commission, Edgar M. Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress and the former chairman of Seagram, praised the overall work of the panel, which wound up two and a half years of work in December 2000 with a 313-page report, "Plunder and Restitution." But he said missing records and a lack of time made the inquiry into looted art difficult. "We didn't do as good a job as we could have," he said, adding that the commission had more success with its inquiries into missing financial assets.

The report concluded that American authorities in Europe had made "extraordinary efforts" to find, safeguard and return art and other victims' assets but that their work had been compromised by conflicting wartime and occupation priorities and occasional acts of thievery by G.I.'s.

Yet the report did not, in the words of one of the panel's experts, Helen B. Junz, a former Treasury official, examine "the ways art was laundered into the U.S."

Legislation creating the commission was passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in June 1998 while world attention focused on efforts to settle victims' long-dormant wartime claims against Swiss banks and insurance companies.

The panel's mission was to "conduct a thorough study and develop a historical record of the collection and disposition" of artworks, gold and other assets of Holocaust victims that came through American jurisdiction and "review comprehensively any research by others."

The report noted that as early as 1946 the State Department had notified museums and other institutions that looted art was entering the United States. But the panel did not examine how museums responded. It also said that it had only preliminarily investigated "the possibility that looted art from Europe was trafficked through Latin America" and that this was among the issues it left "for others to pursue."

A scattering of artworks stolen from Jews and other victims of the Germans have turned up recently in some American museums. But how many of the estimated 10,000 to 100,000 works of museum quality that are still missing may have found their way into the country through Customs and the mails through Latin America, Canada or other channels has long remained uncharted despite State Department reports in the 1940's and 50's by a zealous art tracker, Ardelia Hall, and voluminous additional documentation.

The National Archives hold more than 50 million records relating to World War II and the Holocaust, including more than a million pages of American occupation records about recovered cultural property.

In recent interviews scholars who worked on the panel said that rather than exhaust these channels, it focused on a search for possible American misdeeds, and it found few besides an episode of looting by soldiers from a train of Hungarian gold.

Marc J. Masurovsky, director of research of the commission's section on gold and co-founder of the Washington-based Holocaust Art Restitution Project, which conducts research into wartime losses, said he had expected the panel to investigate "anything that came into the U.S., legally or illegally and all research done by others." But, he said, "90 percent of what we did was reinvent the wheel," restating well-known historical facts.

Aside from short general visits by staff members to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty, he said, museum holdings and records were not scrutinized. And while Congress had not given the commission authority to investigate private enterprises, "we could have worked around that" by studying federal import and auction records, Mr. Masurovsky said. Some of the disaffected staff members, he said, considered writing a stronger minority report. The final report, he said, "could be construed as akin to a whitewash."
Carried out as he and other staff members had urged, he said, the investigation would have examined the Ardelia Hall records, European auction records and other investigative archives.

But Mr. Eizenstat, who now heads the international trade and finance practice at Covington & Burling, a law firm in Washington, and is the author of a recent book on Nazi looting, said the commission's mandate limiting its inquiries to assets flowing through official United States control had been overly restrictive. He called for another international conference on the issue like one held in 1998 and for creation of a new foundation to continue the commission's work.

Lynn H. Nicholas, a research adviser to the panel and author of the 1994 book "The Rape of Europa," which became a touchstone of art-looting scholarship, said the commission "started out with an agenda." "They were so anxious to find smoking guns in the misdeeds of the U.S.," she said, particularly G.I.'s stealing booty as commanders turned a blind eye.

Gerald Feldman, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on financial and insurance issues, said the panel "had some good scholarship but didn't do anything with it." He deplored the decision not to issue a multivolume comprehensive study of Nazi looting as documented by American authorities, similar to reports by the Swiss and Austrians. Instead, after the scholars weighed in, "the original research was distilled by nice young people who wrote the report," he said. "It was a quickie." In the end, he said, "this was a commission set up because they needed to set up a commission."

Kenneth L. Klothen, the commission's executive director and the son of Jewish refugees from Nazism, said, "If documents had been available, we definitely would have gone after them."

Mr. Klothen, former counsel to the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that runs programs like AmeriCorps, said many could not be found. He said the panel had been handicapped by limited time and had no power to compel information. But he said efforts were under way to continue the commission's work as a citizens' commission constituted as a private nonprofit foundation.

Separately, Lucille A. Roussin, a lawyer, art historian and archaeologist who was deputy research director of the commission's art and cultural property section, said the panel should have searched harder for government records documenting the traffic in looted art. She was dismissed from her $55,000-a-year position after seven months and later sued in federal court in Washington, charging age discrimination.

Dr. Poussin, who was 58 at the time, later settled her suit for $32,000. Mr. Bronfman wrote her a letter praising her work.

In her complaint Dr. Roussin contended that the director of the commission's art unit, Jonathan Petropoulos, had obstructed her inquiries into the Metropolitan Museum and others and had blocked her efforts to inquire into Nazi-era transactions by the Wildenstein family of art dealers.

Dr. Petropoulos, professor of history at Claremont McKenna College in California and author of two books on Nazi art thefts, praised the commission's work and denied any effort to inhibit Dr. Roussin's inquiries.
He said the commission had collected about 1,000 pages on the Wildensteins. "There was nothing conclusive," he said.

The Wildensteins have consistently denied any art dealings with Nazi authorities in France.

Mr. Petropoulos said that since leaving the commission he had become a consultant to the Wildensteins in another lawsuit involving Nazi-era claims.
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