by Marc Masurovsky
The post-1945 years have shown that State intervention in the treatment of restitution claims arising from wholesale plunder of Jewish-owned property ensured that the playing field would be somewhat level, allowing victims of modest income to have equal access to State officials as did members of elite and well-connected families, by reason of rank, status, and income.
This illusion of equal access did not last long. The vast majority of restitution claims were converted into compensation requests. In other words, the message to claimants was clear. Unless we think that your loss lessened the cultural patrimony or heritage of the Nation, you are better off asking for some form of financial compensation. Goodbye!
We can actually date this change of mind, somewhere between 1946 and 1947, not more than two years after the most destructive war devastated most of the European continent.
Jewish groups have behaved in similar fashion. Rushing to declare all unidentified Jewish cultural losses as “heirless”, they lobbied postwar officials and Allied military authorities in Germany and Austria across Western and Central Europe to turn over to them hundreds of tons of unclaimed Jewish property so that they could be sold off to benefit displaced persons and refugees. Choice pieces were transferred to Palestine/Israel where they were inevitably incorporated into Israeli cultural institutions.
Without a lawyer, an accountant, and one or more friends in “high places,” if your name was not Rothschild, Zuckerhandl, Seligmann, Bernheim, Rosenberg, Mannheimer, and so forth, your loss as a result of Nazi/Fascist anti-Jewish persecution and plunder was your problem, no one else’s.
Fast forward to the last 20 years…
The US government, at the outset of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets of December 1998, issued 11 principles, most of which shaped and framed by American museum officials, to guide the future behavior of museums and governments alike when faced with restitution claims. As soon as the conference ended and the Principles were announced to great fanfare, everyone went home and the 42 governments that had sent representatives to what was supposed to be a watershed moment in the postwar treatment of Jewish losses, forgot why they had attended the conference and business resumed as usual in some kind of amnesia-driven haze which had characterized their behavior since 1945 when confronted with Jewish losses-human and material.
Enter the private sector to fill the yawning void left gaping by governmental neglect, indifference and absenteeism. Private lawyers, consultants, researchers, treasure hunters and other glory seekers, entered the fray to “help claimants” with their quest for justice. The catch? If your loss was not “interesting”, viz., if your objects did not fetch a high enough value on the art market, your claim was dead. If, on the other hand, your objects, if found and recovered, could yield several hundred thousand dollars or euros and up to the tens of millions of dollars, sometimes hundreds of millions, you could easily find enough logistical and political support to carry you through the tedium of a restitution claim. High-value objects signed Schiele, Klimt, Pissarro, Picasso, Kirchner, Grosz, Modigliani, and many others, have shaped th public’s understanding of cultural plunder. Why would anyone steal something other than a “masterpiece”? It’s as if there were only a hundred artists in the entire world whose works the Nazis coveted. Wrong again. Still, the restitution game has fueled that perception which, in its very essence, is a-historical and a profound lie.
In the end, the top 1 to 5 percent of the claimant class can afford to obtain support for their quest for justice in the shape of a “solution” to the adverse ownership of an object looted and recycled on the international art market. For the beleaguered rest, go fish!
Justice is elusive for those who cannot afford it.
As of today, there is no mechanism, twenty years after the Washington Principles, 74 years since the end of WWII, which allows claimants to achieve measurable justice that rises above the word “imperfect” so perfectly touted by Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat and his ilk.
What’s worse is that wealthy claimants do not feel any compunction to come to the aid of the less fortunate amongst them. Not one, not a single one, and their lawyers, after recovering millions of dollars from the sale of restituted objects, has thought to support the less fortunate claimants with research and legal support. It is dog eat dog out there, no room for solidarity, compassion or commonality of interest, just like during the Holocaust. If you were of modest income, you were on your own and you definitely could not rely on your wealthy neighbors to bail you out. Too bad. Life’s not fair. Far more worthwhile to plant trees and give to your favorite animal rescue effort. History? Who cares? Culture? Who cares? Cultural rights? Yeah, right. Justice? Get over yourself.
Mainstream Jewish organizations have taken the greater part of 70 years before paying attention to victims of plunder. In so doing, they have continued to ignore individual claimants who seek the return of cultural objects from museums, auction houses and private collectors, except for the Claims Conference, the Commission for Art Recovery and the Holocaust Art Restitution Project.
Organizations established to promote the cause of restitution and aid in recovery efforts found themselves blurring the lines between justice and profit.
Holocaust memorials around the world pretend that the word “plunder” does not apply to their mission and should not be taught to their visitors. Selective ignorance is bliss.
The State of Israel has had a very ambivalent attitude towards the victims of plunder, preferring to ignore them rather than helping them, with the exception of Hashava, a State agency set up to assist in recovering looted objects and property located in Israel. It unfortunately closed its doors last year, therefore, Israel has no mechanism by which to assist claimants whose families endured the worst cataclysm to befall the Jewish people.
In the end, the 95 percent of claimants have been on their own since 1945. No wonder so many of them have chosen to forgo the torture of seeking the return of their lost property, to the great relief of those who own their property. After all, what are laws for except to protect the interests of those who own property even if looted during an act of genocide?
Plunder pays for itself. It is a crime against people, against communities, against culture which the international community has decried but done nothing measurable and concrete to prevent and to punish. Ownership of private property is more important than restorative justice for losses incurred during genocidal acts, objects ripped out of the ground of source nations, or forcibly removed from indigenous communities worldwide, powerless to oppose the white devils and their fire-breathing sticks.
Why should we expect museums, galleries, auction houses, art dealers and collectors to behave any differently? There is no incentive for them to be more “ethical”, no rewards for good behavior and no measurable consequence for bad behavior resulting in the acquisition and possession of looted cultural assets. They keep on doing what they do best—aid and abet the plundering ways of our fellow brothers and sisters around the world across generations. Catch us if you dare!
Arnold Toynbee summed it up beautifully when he declared that our species, Homo sapiens, should be renamed Homo cruellis.