Skip Navigation

Committee on Financial Services

United States House of Representatives

Archive Press Releases

STATEMENT OF RONALD S. LAUDER, CHAIRMAN
Commission for Art Recovery, World Jewish Congress

 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I am pleased to appear before you today to discuss the contemporary implications of the Nazis' looting of art from collections both public and private, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Last June, the Committee heard from Lynn H. Nicholas about the scope of the Nazis' illegal actions in this area. As you have recognized in the just passed "Holocaust Victims Redress Act," the Nazi plunder of art was in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention which prohibits taking cultural property as spoils of war. The ancient practice of officially sanctioned plunder was outlawed for modern times.

We can all be proud of the United States Army's unit for Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives, operating in occupied Germany, which did an outstanding job of caring for and returning hundreds of thousands of looted works of art to the countries where they were before the war. These returns, which made our officers heroes within the world of art and culture, were not accomplished without controversy.

In the first years after the war, United States policy was by no means clear on whether to return treasures to German museums. During a period in late 1945 when the United States brought some 200 masterpieces from the Berlin museums to our country for a blockbuster tour, a significant number of Monuments Officers who gathered at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point protested in a communiqué to their superiors. They said:

"We wish to state that from our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long, or be the cause of so much justified bitterness, as the removal, for any reason, of the part of a heritage of any nation, even if that heritage be interpreted as a prize of war."

The United States soon made the right decision -- to return all cultural artifacts found at war's end to their countries. In the light of recent events, that decision, that policy, looks better than ever. It is to this Committee's credit that this principle of return has been reaffirmed. As a leader of the victorious Alliance in the Second World War, we have every reason to be proud that we are confronting and reassessing our history. To do so, we need to declassify more archives, so that we may evaluate the record of our past. And we need to press other nations to do the same.

Daylight is beginning to shine on works of art long hidden. The works of art brought back to Russia at the end of the war have been put on public view by museum directors in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The French National Museums held an exhibition of over 2,000 works of art whose owners had not been located after the war.

Of course, the ancient impulse outlawed by the Hague Convention, the impulse to take and keep spoils of war, cannot be eradicated so easily. Individual soldiers took things that they brought or sent home. Even though they were forbidden to, individual members of the United States Armed Forces were guilty of looting.

In Texas, the brother and sister of one of these men were indicted under the National Stolen Property Act for their sale of the ninth-century manuscript with a jewel-encrusted gold cover that their brother had sent home in 1945. His unit was in charge of safeguarding the church treasures in Quedlinburg, Germany.

The recent revelations about that American G.I., the art that actually survived in Russia although almost no one knew about it for fifty-two years, and the exhibition in France, have made a wider public aware of the vast scale of the dislocation of works of art during the years before, during, and just after the Second World War.

There has been a widespread realization that some European governments (including Austria, France, and the Netherlands) failed to return all the art to pre-war owners. The works of art that have not been returned have been called the last prisoners of war.

Only recently has it become possible to answer important questions about the fate of the still missing art. Archives are becoming accessible and some documents declassified. The hour is late, but not too late.

In September of last year, I agreed to chair a Commission for Art Recovery for the World Jewish Congress. I am committed to finding the works of art that the Nazis looted from Jews and non-Jews. Our goal is to reunite the art with the families. The Commission for Art Recovery will work internationally, but our work will - of course - include the United States.

We realize that today many current possessors are several steps removed from the looters. Many are good faith purchasers, private and institutional, and will feel victimized when confronted with claims, because they are unaware of the art's tainted past.

A further complication lies in the different legal systems of different countries. In the United States and other common law countries, we rely on the principle that you do not get good title from a thief -- or from any of his successors in interest. In Europe, generally speaking, a good faith purchaser acquires good title; those legal systems prefer to give finality to a normal commercial transaction, even at the expense of victims of theft. We must seek solutions that recognize the expectations of a European good faith purchaser and the degree of loss that would be felt by a good faith purchaser here who is asked to relinquish a looted work of art.

The museum directors who spoke before me are pledged to researching the ownership history of their holdings. Provenance of possibly looted objects can only be determined by researching, sometimes in several languages on several continents. Some research in primary sources -- public archives and private files -- may be necessary and may not yield definitive results. The records of art dealers who are long since out of business and families who have moved may be inaccessible or non-existent. It takes patience and fortitude.

Museums, individual claimants, and the art market need help in this effort. All those we have met with have a keen desire to consult a master list of allegedly looted work art. Right now, it does not exist, but the Commission will undertake to build and maintain one, with the cooperation of other groups in this country and abroad. This should be done with a combination of private sector funds and government support.

In the Holocaust Victims Redress Act, the Congress called on all governments to "undertake good faith efforts to facilitate the return of public and private property, such as works of art, to the rightful owners in cases where assets were confiscated from the claimant during the period of Nazi rule and there is reasonable proof that the claimant is the rightful owner."

The funds appropriated for "archival research to assist in the restitution of assets looted or extorted from victims of the Holocaust" and for remembrance and education can provide some support for the important and urgent work that lies ahead. If the bill becomes law, I will urge the decision makers to contribute to our effort to build the database of Holocaust-looted art that will play a major role.

I ask this Committee, in approaching the issue of the restitution of art, to appreciate the many ways in which works of art differ from other assets. Art moves in ways that are often very difficult to trace. It is bought and sold privately at least as often as it passes through public sales. When it is inherited and given within families, it may not surface for several generations. Art travels easily across borders. In countries where citizens are taxed on assets instead of income, art collectors are intensely secretive.

The Congress should also support a mediation mechanism for resolving disputes over looted art. The Commission for Art Recovery is available to work with the Committee to form a body to which parties can turn for a fair hearing. We can provide a panel of knowledgeable mediators and would encourage this Committee to support such a forum. This panel would be guided by principles that balance the needs of interested parties. It would develop solutions acceptable to good faith purchasers while seeking the restitution of looted art for the families that have been deprived of so much.

The survivors who seek to recover the art have already suffered decades of frustration and should not be asked to sustain the ordeal of lengthy and costly lawsuits. The sense of the Congress, which I applaud, is that it is important to minimize the legal obstacles interfering with the just return of art to Holocaust survivors.

Clarification of the relation between the statutes that provide art loaned to museums with protection from seizure and the powers of government authorities is badly needed. The current state of uncertainty arising from recent events in New York involving claims to works of Egon Schiele has disturbed lenders around the world and has the potential to do major damage to the orderly conduct of major international loan exhibitions.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I thank you for this opportunity to express my views and concerns on a matter of deep interest and importance to us all.



 

E-mail Updates

Sign up to get e-mail updates from the Committee

Committee on Financial Services  •  2129 Rayburn House Office Building  •  Washington, DC 20515  •  (202) 225-7502
For Press Inquiries: (202) 226-0471