Still tough to find: Most Nazi-looted art is outside the purview of a new Web site

The Chicago Tribune 12 September 2003
Howard Reich

The recent unveiling of a new Web site listing artworks that may have been looted by the Nazis had at least two unintended consequences, experts say.

First, it underscored how much stolen art falls outside the purview of the new venture - the vast majority. Second, it reminded Holocaust survivors who are trying to reclaim stolen art how far the issue of property restitution has fallen from public consciousness and political discourse. Granted, virtually everyone involved in trying to retrieve looted art justly applauded the introduction of the Nazi- Era Provenance Internet Portal (, launched last month by the American Association of Museums. For the first time, data on more than 8,000 works of possibly questionable provenance collected in 74 American art museums (including the Yale University Art Gallery and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art) can be researched on a single Web site.

But even those championing the new portal recognize its limitations.

"The Web site is important because it takes a rather chaotic, disorganized mass of information and puts (it) in one place ... but the issue of looted art is complex and is not going to be easily resolved by this portal or by any simple solutions," says Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which provided $75,000 toward its creation. (The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany processed a "slave labor" claim paid by the German government to the writer of this article’s mother, a Holocaust survivor.) "The portal is one piece in the puzzle," continues Taylor. "And in order for the portal to succeed, what’s needed is a clear commitment from museums that have agreed to participate to do (provenance) research in a full way, and for museums that are not yet participating to join the process."

But if all of the American museums involved in the project research the history of the questionable paintings successfully, and if the scores of American museums that are not yet participating in the venture decide to join, the portal still barely will make a dent in tracking down tens of thousands of unrecovered art objects known to have been stolen during World War II, observers note. The American Association of Museums, by definition, cannot include in its registry works in private collections in the United States and beyond, nor can it document objects in European institutions that have fought mightily to block restitution. The point was dramatically underscored Sept. 10, just two days after the launch of the new Web site, when a congressional briefing organized by the Helsinki Commission in Washington, D.C., detailed the often insurmountable obstacles American citizens face in trying to reclaim looted property in post-communist Europe. In a 30-page "Summary of Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe," U.S. Ambassador Randolph M. Bell, the country’s highest-ranking Holocaust-issues official, chronicled many successes in persuading European countries to become more cooperative but also detailed many roadblocks American claimants encounter.

Among them:

- Poland, home to 3.4 million Jews before World War II, has not drafted a single law regarding restitution of private property.

- The Czech Republic exempts its municipal museums from national restitution laws.

- Romania gives claimants scant information and virtually untenable deadlines for making applications.

That’s just part of the difficulty.

"Personal property (restitution) has been absolutely disastrous in Central and Eastern Europe," says Stuart Eizenstat, special representative of the president and secretary of state on Holocaust- era issues during the Clinton administration.

"To the extent that (European) countries are creating public registries (of possibly looted art), they’re doing it in their own languages, and they don’t put photos of the paintings on the Web sites, making it very difficult to identify the works.

"Although there are still plenty of cases of art being returned in Austria and of France posting a Web site of some 2,000 paintings, the actual process has really substantially slowed down," Eizenstat says.

"The momentum has been lost, there is no impetus from the U.S. government and the administration to put this back on the agenda ... and countries (with loot) know it."

Adds Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who sits on the Helsinki Commission and attended the recent property-restitution briefing in Washington, "There are no international standards (on returning loot), and if the
Czech Republic and Poland and Romania want to be mature democracies, they need to put these issues behind them." But why has an issue that gathered so much momentum immediately after the fall of communism lost steam around the world? "It’s no longer a new story, so news editors have said, ‘Been there, done that,’" says Jonathan Petropoulos, professor at Claremont (Calif.) McKenna College and
author of "The Faustian Bargain: The Art World of Nazi Germany" (Getty Center for Education in the Arts).

"Also, the process of discovering artwork and proving that it was looted and not restituted is so slow and laborious that it’s hard to keep people’s attention.

"So there has been a real drop-off in terms of publicity, and in terms of institutions taking productive steps to address the issue.  It’s mind-boggling how many provenance researchers in Germany have
lost their positions.

"To the current (U.S.) administration, this is not a priority."

Certainly the senior position that Eizenstat held in the Clinton administration was not filled by the Bush administration, which instead accorded it lower, ambassador status with Bell’s appointment.

And though Holocaust-issue insiders uniformly applaud Bell’s mastery of a complex mosaic of European restitution laws, they assert that his midlevel status leaves him without the presidential clout needed to coax European countries into systematically returning looted art.

Bell and representatives of his office declined to comment for this article. Whatever powers of persuasion Bell has been able to summon, however, soon will be of little use, since sources say he will be stepping down from his post later this year. Thus, Holocaust survivors will have to wait until a new special envoy for Holocaust issues is appointed and gets up to speed. But even if Bell’s successor triumphs in getting Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and other countries to write more comprehensive restitution laws, a considerable backlog of cases suggests that persuading these nations to enforce their own legislation will not be easy. In many instances, Holocaust survivors and heirs holding copious documentation on their ownership of looted art collections are ignored, or worse, by foreign  governments. For instance, after a Lyons, Ill.,-based Vietnam veteran claimed a multimillion-dollar collection looted from his great-great- uncle in Prague, the Czech government acted to block restitution.

While acknowledging that the collection had been stolen, the Czech Culture Ministry retroactively declared the most valuable pieces in the collection "national cultural treasures" that could not be removed from the country. The Jewish Museum in Prague has filed suit in the Czech Republic on behalf of Gerald McDonald, the Lyons claimant, but the Czech court has not yet begun to hear the case. In Massachusetts, former Czech national Peter Glaser (an American citizen) holds documentation showing that a collection of rare Arabian antiquities looted in Prague belong to him, an assertion confirmed by the Jewish Museum in Prague (which holds corresponding paperwork). The Czech courts have rejected Glaser’s claim, saying, among other things, that Glaser cannot obtain the objects because he did not file a claim during the Communist era, though no such claim would have been entertained.

Glaser has taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France, which is currently hearing it. In the private sector, too, claimants have encountered various hurdles. To this day, for instance, Christie’s auction house declines to divulge the identity of the holder of an oil painting by 18th-century Italian artist Michele Marieschi believed to have been looted from the parents of twin sisters Erika Tauber and Eva Glaser (Peter Glaser’s wife), of Massachusetts. "I am hoping we will find a way to resolve this problem," says Erika Jakubovits, of the Jewish Community Organization of Vienna, which has been trying to persuade Christie’s to reverse course. "But let’s say we find out who has the Marieschi," continues Jakubovits. "Then what happens? "How do we then get the painting back? Which laws in which countries will apply?" For claimants such as the septuagenarian Tauber-Glaser twins, time is not
on their side.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024