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Committee on Financial Services

United States House of Representatives

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CURRENCY

The Committee on Banking and Financial Services
U.S House of Representatives, 105th Congress
James A. Leach, Chairman

Phone: (202) 226-0471 Fax: (202) 226-6052 Internet: http://www.house.gov/banking

For Immediate Release                                              
Thursday, February 12, 1998   Andrew Biggs 226-0471

Opening Statement
Rep. James A. Leach
Chairman, House Banking and Financial Services Committee
Hearing on World War II-Era Looted Artworks and Insurance Policies

Today the committee convenes another in its series of hearings on restitution issues related to World War II and the Holocaust. In previous hearings, we reviewed questions about Swiss banks accounts and the disposition of Nazi gold during and after World War II. The witnesses who appeared before the Committee included not only American experts, but also historians and government officials from seven countries on three continents.

Historical inquiry is not the usual function of a legislative body. But in examining the period in which the Holocaust took place, we are engaging in more than a review of history. We are plumbing some of the deepest questions of human existence: what, for instance, is evil? What is justice?

Specifically, the Committee today is reviewing what is considered one of the seven mortal sins: avarice. The question is whether a desire to abscond with the assets of others, including personal property such as wedding rings and art objects, played a role in impelling the greatest mass murder in history. And if this is the case, does not civilized society today have an obligation to ensure that profiteering from Holocaust acts does not stand?

This morning the Committee will look at art. In the afternoon, we will examine an aspect of finance, insurance, to complement the Committee’s prior review of certain wartime banking practices.

With regard to art, the Nazis defined certain works as "degenerate." The term did not simply imply a subjective judgment of a certain style or school of painting or sculpture. "Degenerate" also, and perhaps most ominously, implied "up for grabs" art – objects of value that anyone with power on the spot could appropriate for himself and sell on the international art market, which experienced a wartime boom the likes of which was not seen again until the 1980s.

"Degenerate" was thus a term that implicitly applied not only to the art work or the artist, but to the owner – whether an individual or a museum. And so it is troubling that the most powerful Nazis collected for themselves treasure troves of art. Thus Hitler, a former art student, surrounded himself with art works; as did Goering, Himmler, and others. These plunderers whose acts of governance can only be described as evil became perhaps the greatest art collectors of modern times.

The German art establishment felt pressure to "purify" its holdings as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, and that pressure only increased as he pressed to realize his dream of a "pure," Germanic empire. Hitler intended nothing less than the purification of Europe’s cultural patrimony. In this he found the willing cooperation of the occupation regimes. In France, the Vichy government declared that French Jews lost their citizenship and property rights if they left the country, whether voluntarily to a safe haven or in a box car to a concentration camp.

The possessions of those who left were confiscated. Nazi occupiers carefully catalogued the art works left behind so that the likes of Hitler and Goering could choose what they wanted. Goering visited Paris and took more than 600 items. Hitler, who had first choice, made his picks from albums of photographs.

In due course, entire museums were emptied, thousands of dwellings were looted and some of the greatest private holdings, many of them owned by Jewish families – among them such collectors as the Rothchilds, David David-Weil and such dealers as Paul Rosenberg and Bernheim-Jeune – were expropriated and sold off. By the end of the war, the most massive displacement of art in history had taken place – not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of art objects of every description had been taken from their original owners and moved.

U.S. and British forces – rejecting the hoary and cruel tradition that spoils of war belong to the victor – made unprecedented efforts to undo Hitler’s fiendish work. Experts in art were attached to each of the main units of the Western forces of occupation. Special Collecting Points were set up for the tons of paintings, sculptures and other treasurers that were brought out from the caves, salt mines, bunkers, castles, churches, even cow sheds, in which the Germans had hidden them as the Allies closed in. So much art poured into these collecting points that their holdings soon rivaled the prewar collections of the world’s greatest museums. American military authorities eventually transferred these mountains of treasure to the governments of the countries from which they had been taken. Heirless property, which had been confiscated mainly from Jews, was turned over to the Jewish Successor Restitution Organization.

What makes the fate of these plundered artworks especially important is that it is the responsibility of civil society to redress the greatest theft in history. This Congress has gone on record with the passage of the Holocaust Victims’ Redress Act, which is now awaiting the President’s signature, that all governments have the obligation to take appropriate action to return artworks extorted or confiscated by the Nazis to their original owners or their heirs. The operative principle is simple: stolen property must be returned. Pillaged art cannot come under a statute of limitations. The rape of Europa must not pass without atonement.

There is little doubt that while the preponderance of art objects taken by the Nazis remains in Europe, some items assuredly have found their way into the U.S., their tainted origin having been obscured along the way through multiple transactions and dubious or incomplete records of provenance. This morning we will hear about this problem from the heads of four of our most distinguished art museums and a representative of art dealers, as well as groups involved in restitution efforts.

They will tell us what measures have been taken to establish that art works in their possession do not rightfully belong to someone else, especially Holocausts victims. And they will tell us how they approach the delicate judgements they must make when their responsibilities as fiduciaries for public institutions come into conflict with a potential legal requirement of honoring the legitimate claim of a previous owner from whom a work may have been stolen or extorted in the Nazi era.

Moral and legal issues abound. What is the responsibility of a museum or auction house or art dealer when they ascertain that a piece a donor or client is offering to give or sell may be of tainted provenance? Is there a duty to inform the art work owner of the existence of conflicting ownership claims and a further duty to report the situation to law enforcement authorities?

Such questions are relatively new, although they are fast becoming commonplace, thanks in part to such writers as Lynn Nicholas, who testified before this committee in June, and Hector Feliciano.

We need, it seems to me, new structures to come to grips with this problem – new data bases, new clusters of experts, new international covenants, perhaps new domestic legislation, although Congress may have gone as far as it appropriately should on this subject in the Holocaust Victims’ Redress Act. The initiatives for all this should preferably come from the bottom up, and in this context, I am gratified by reports that responsible museums are talking about establishing an experts group to consider disputes that may arise about the provenance of art works. That is a step in the right direction – a recognition that a problem exists and that it is important.

But most importantly, we need new attitudes, a new determination to resolve these profound issues. Here I can safely say that we in Congress stand ready to play a part, as symbolized by today’s hearing, in raising public consciousness to the issues at stake and monitoring the progress of private sector actions.

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