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Committee on Financial Services

United States House of Representatives

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Jonathan Petropoulos
Associate Professor of History, Claremont McKenna College
Research Director for Art and Cultural Property,
Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the U.S.


Written Comments for House Banking Committee

Hearing of 10 February 2000



Good morning, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. At the outset, I should note that the views I am expressing here are my own, and not those of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. As the Members of this Committee know, the Presidential Commission was created last year to investigate the fate of Holocaust victims’ assets – including art and cultural property, gold, and financial assets such as bank accounts and securities – that came into the possession or control of the United States government. The Presidential Commission will deliver its report later this year, and only that report can express the final opinions and recommendations of the Commissioners.

My remarks today will be organized into four categories. The first concerns numbers: what was looted and what has yet to be returned to victims and their heirs. The second involves museums in the United States and the extent to which they are committed to the process of examining their collections for looted objects and then returning such works to the rightful owners. The third category pertains to victims’ property that is currently in private collections. Last, I will provide a brief up-date on the work of the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.

My testimony today is predicated on a number of important facts that are not always kept in mind in discussions of Holocaust-era Assets. First, the vast majority of art plundered by the Nazis was not "world class" or "museum quality" work. Most of what was taken were paintings of the type owned by successful – but not extremely wealthy – families, domestic silver and household artifacts, and books and religious items. We hear a lot about Old Masters and similar paintings taken from the wealthiest collectors or most successful dealers, but they make up only a fraction of the numerically more significant theft. Additionally, counting and accounting for such assets is even more difficult than many think. We all know that comprehensive lists of what was taken do not exist, but even the lists that we do have treat similar assets differently. For instance, in some places, a stolen stamp collection is counted once, while in other places it may be counted as 1,000 or more separate objects. It is important to keep these differences in mind while attempting to quantify the lost assets.

I. Numbers:

Figures about cultural objects, including artworks that were displaced from 1933 to 1945, are often highly speculative. At some level, it is impossible to obtain precise statistics. This stems in part from the wide variation in figures provided by different countries: statistics have significant (and often political) implications, and they have been calculated in different ways. The figures below are based on my own secondary research and do not represent the findings of the PCHA – it is still too early to report any of our findings.

The Germans stole between 1933-1945: 600,000 artworks (paintings, sculpture, objets d’art, tapestries, but excluding furniture, books, stamps, or coins). This includes some 200,000 works in Germany and Austria, some 100,000 in Western Europe and 300,000 objects from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The Germans stored in mines, castles and other depots between 1939-1945: 5 million objects in over 1,500 depots (2.5 million were in the US occupation zones; 2 million were in the Russian zones, and 500,000 in other places).

The Americans and British restituted (both stolen and stored works) between 1945-1950: 2.5 million cultural objects, of which 468,000 were paintings, drawings, and sculptures.1 The Americans alone returned 250,000 objects via the Central Collecting Point in Munich.2

The Soviets removed from occupied zones, 1944-1947: 1.8 million cultural objects.

The Soviets restituted to the German Democratic Republic and other Warsaw Pact countries between 1955-1958: 1.5 - 1.6 million.3

The Russians today still have in storage depots: 200,000.4 This number is somewhat sketchy. Some believe the number to be even higher.

The number of French MNRs (works held in trusteeship by the French government: 2,000 (1,000 which are paintings).

The Germans have today 1,532 paintings (1,076 of which hang in museums and the remainder in government offices and embassies) that came from the collections of Hitler, Goering, Bormann, and other leaders, and were deemed not to have come from victims’ collections.

The number of displaced works still missing from World War II apart from those in Russian depots: 10,000 to 110,000.

II. Museums:

Spurred on by hearings before this Committee and its analogue in the Senate, and led by the Clinton Administration’s Special Representative Stuart Eizenstat – who convened the Washington Conference on Holocaust Assets last winter sponsored by the Department of State and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – many American museums are now making a concerted effort to examine their collections for works looted from victims of the Holocaust.

The Washington Principles

The importance of the Washington Conference and the resulting Washington Principles cannot be overstated. Agreed to by delegations from 44 countries and 13 nongovernmental organizations just over one year ago, the principles state that:

In developing a consensus on non-binding principles to assist in resolving issues relating to Nazi-confiscated art, the Conference recognizes that among participating nations there are differing legal systems and that countries act within the context of their own laws.

I.   Art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted should be identified.

II.   Relevant records and archives should be open and accessible to researchers, in accordance with the guidelines of the International Council on Archives.

III.   Resources and personnel should be made available to facilitate the identification of all art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted.

IV.   In establishing that a work of art had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, consideration should be given to unavoidable gaps or ambiguities in the provenance in light of the passage of time and the circumstances of the Holocaust era.

V.   Every effort should be made to publicize art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted in order to locate its pre-War owners or their heirs.

VI.   Efforts should be made to establish a central registry of such information.

VII.   Pre-War owners and their heirs should be encouraged to come forward and make known their claims to art that was confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted.

VIII.   If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognizing this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case.

IX.   If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis, or their heirs, cannot be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution.

X.   Commissions or other bodies established to identify art that was confiscated by the Nazis and to assist in addressing ownership issues should have a balanced membership.

XI.   Nations are encouraged to develop national processes to implement these principles, particularly as they relate to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership issues.

American Association of Art Museum Directors - American Association of Museums

Two professional organizations have issued guidelines that are intended to facilitate the process of identifying works of questionable provenance: the American Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Association of Museums (AAM). The AAMD was the first into the field, and its initial work informed the development of the Washington Principles. The AAM guidelines, coming after the Washington Principles, are the most recent to the field, and show the development of institutional thinking in this area. They ask more of museums not only in identifying works with problematic provenance, but also in making public disclosure of credible evidence of unlawful appropriation. Additionally, they contemplate that museums may waive legitimate legal defenses to claims for recovery of once-looted art works "in order to achieve an equitable and appropriate resolution of claims."5 In my view, these are positive developments. The question remains, however, as to what will happen when member institutions of these organizations do not comply with their voluntary guidelines.

Curiously, these developments, including the leadership of the Federal government in promoting awareness and discussion of the issues, return us to where we once were as a country. Historical research shows us that directly after the end of World War II, the U.S. government, in the form of both the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (better known as the Roberts Commission) and the Department of State, warned American museums and art dealers about the problem of looted works being offered for sale.6 At the time, a still poorly understood complex of factors caused both the government and museums to lose sight of the need for this type of vigilance. As a result, works with problematic provenance entered both public and private collections in this country.

The Roberts Commission and the actions of the State Department, however, set an important precedent: the United States Government has a vital interest in Holocaust-affected art, and has for more than 60 years. The actions of this Committee today – like past hearings and future ones – play an important part in asserting our nation’s influence in the pursuit of justice.

Effectiveness of Searching Museum Collections

In general, I think that that the process of self-scrutiny of museum collections is working. I am aware that several major museums have discussed the progress they have made with their self-studies. Additionally, many museums have now adopted a policy of checking the provenance of works that they borrow for special exhibitions. It is very difficult to ascertain all the information that is necessary for a work to be restituted to victims or their heirs. One usually has only partial information. Therefore, the museums conducting these self-studies typically identify works with so-called "red-flags"; cases in which there are serious questions about the work’s provenance, but not conclusive proof. As I indicated above, museums are finding such works and thereby the process is moving ahead. My greatest concern is what museums do once they have this information; that is, when doubts have been raised but there is no definitive link to a victim. Serious consideration must be given to the need to balance the legitimate institutional interests of museums and their governing bodies in preserving their collections and avoiding the cost and disruption of litigating false or mistaken claims with the need for access to information about questionable works by Holocaust survivors, their heirs, and scholars.

Today, in most cases, museums are not going public with the information found in their self-studies. In nearly all cases where works in museums are determined to have problematic provenance, the disclosure has come from an outside researcher. An important exception to this generalization is the National Gallery in Washington, DC, which puts the provenance of its works on the Internet. The Gallery should be commended for this because it goes farther than any other American museum of which I am aware in this respect. If other institutions could match its accomplishments and present provenance information electronically, the situation would be vastly improved.

I believe that most museums want to do what is right in this area. They view research efforts such as that of the Presidential Commission’s as potentially able to help them find more information about pieces in question. But I believe that we need a reasonable arrangement by which museums publicize the works in their collections that have "red flags", so that survivors and their heirs searching for looted works are at least on a level playing field with respect to access to current knowledge about the provenance of works in institutional collections.

Archives Access

One additional issue in this category remains: access to the archival records housed in museums. This has been a concern of researchers for some time. Deputy Secretary Eizenstat made it part of the Washington Principles, and so far, there seems to have been improvement in this respect. I am more sanguine about the prospects of improving access to archives of American museums than those located abroad. The most important untapped resources, of course, lie in Russia. Access to Russian archives by scholars and provenance researchers has been, at best, spotty and unpredictable. But even in other countries where the political and economic situation is less chaotic, real barriers to open access still exist, and representatives of survivors and their heirs complain that a variety of barriers are selectively deployed to impede their ability to identify looted cultural property. At the Stockholm Conference held at the end of January, an official joint statement recognized archival access as an issue. Deputy Secretary Eizenstat went further, calling for the opening of all records relating to the Holocaust. Both scholars and victims around the world hope that these call will be heeded

Where public access is limited because material remains classified for national security reasons, the establishment of the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group (IWG) in the United States offers an important model. The IWG, comprised of representatives of the public, the National Archives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the Department of Justice, the Department of State, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, has been hard at work for over a year to identify and declassify remaining Nazi-era documents held throughout the United States Government. It has challenged agencies to reevaluate the need to keep such documents from the public eye, and has succeeded in declassifying thousands of additional pages for the benefits of research.

III. Private Collections:

No one is quite sure how many works stolen from Holocaust victims are currently in private hands. At the Washington Conference, Ronald Lauder, Chairman of the Board of the Museum of Modern Art, estimated that there are 110,000 works looted during World War II that have never been returned to the proper owners. While it is difficult, indeed perhaps impossible, to arrive at a precise figure, such an estimate can be arrived at when the number of works likely to be in private collections is taken into account.

Value of Looted Art

We must recognize that most of the victims of the Holocaust were not wealthy individuals with museum quality art in their homes, yet the loss of their assets constitutes the major part of the attempt to obliterate and entire cultural heritage. The fate of lesser paintings, along with silver sets and other cultural assets, doesn’t have a hold on the public imagination that world-renowned art has. But the systemic nature of Nazi looting means that large quantities of these kinds of cultural assets changed hands. The following passage taken from a 25 November 1948 interview conducted by American authorities with Dr. von Crannach-Sichart, the former director of the prominent Munich auction house Adolf Weinmueller, conveys both the nature of the process and the resultant difficulties in making restitution in a vivid fashion:

"In default of all documents, which burnt, we wanted to state by heart with the following, what kind of connection existed between the Gestapo Prague and the art-dealer firm Weinmueller. During the course of the year 1941, a shipment of the Gestapo Prague arrived by truck with the order to sell the contents by auction. They mostly were paintings by old and modern painters, some graphic maps and some Persian rugs. Not a single object of international value or of higher quality was among these items. They rather had a generally medium rank, so that it was not worthwhile to have a special auction for them, but it was necessary to give these objects to a general auction. We are no more in a position to give specific instructions on number or details. We were not told from where the objects originated. There were no further orders. The objects were sold during the following auction. Because of the above mentioned reason we are no more able to state to which owner they went."7

This testimony speaks to a number of important issues: perhaps most notably, the wholesale expropriation and "liquidation" of victims’ property by the Nazi agents; the quotidian nature of the majority of the property; the role played by art dealers (and private firms more generally) in the execution of the Nazis’ policies; and finally, the absence of relevant documentation.

Another episode is almost equally revealing. Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld wrote a piece for The New Yorker magazine in November 1998, where he recounted visiting the village in which he was born and raised in Bukovina (then part of Romania, now in Ukraine).8 In this extraordinary account, where he noted the reluctance of the (non-Jewish) villagers to discuss the Jewish population that once lived in the town, the most remarkable aspect was that many of their homes contained property that belonged to their Jewish neighbors. He noted that the villagers still residing there had books, furniture, folk art—all kinds of property—that had been taken from the local Jews while they were persecuted. Appelfeld, observed with respect to his parents, who had been murdered, "Today I know that many of my mother’s jewels are to be found in the village houses, and certainly quite a few gifts that my father brought to her from Vienna or Prague. Everything was stolen and now lives in captivity."9

In short, victims’ assets are still in private hands; many are still in Europe, and the evidence indicates that some ultimately came to the United States. Looted Holocaust assets were not only works by Michelangelo and Matisse. Many of the less commercially valuable objects were never properly restituted and are now in private hands and may never be identified or restituted.

Actions of Art Dealers

The commerce in works belonging to Holocaust victims in the postwar period has several other important distinguishing features. The first is that many of the dealers in the employ of the Nazi leaders rehabilitated their careers in the post-1950 period and created a shadowy parallel market in which works of dubious provenance often changed hands. This is one of the topics I address in my recent book, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. The center of this parallel market was in Bavaria, Austria, and Switzerland: the regions where most of these Nazi dealers continued to reside (and in the case of Switzerland, where the legal code facilitated the laundering of looted art). Second, many works belonging to victims seem to have been sold abroad, particularly in Latin America and South Africa. A number of well-known European dealers had representatives in South America, and Switzerland appears an important staging area for these sales.

Allied Restitution Policy

We must also look at the manner in which works looted from Holocaust victims were safeguarded and handled by the Allies after the war. It was U.S. policy to return works to the governments of the countries from which the Nazis plundered them. The research trail tends to go cold at this point, however. We now know very little about what agreements the governments made with regard to restitution to rightful owners, how diligently they pursued such restitution, and if the United States monitored the process.

In many cases, we know that European governments did not deliver the works to victims or their heirs, determining that they were unidentifiable or that heirs could not be located. The French, for example, auctioned off 13,000 artworks in the late-1940s that were deemed "heirless" and the true owners never recovered their art or received any compensation. The Dutch did the same. It appears that the communist governments of Eastern Europe in many cases did not follow through on restitution to individual victims.10 We need more information to ascertain to what extent works returned to European governments by the U.S. forces were liquidated without any compensation to victims or heirs, and how scrupulous these governments were in trying to identify cultural assets and return them.

Future Role of Art Dealers

I would like to add in this respect the important role that art dealers and auction houses can play in identifying and returning works now in the private sphere to survivors and their heirs. As we experience a generational transition—that is, as those who were alive during and after World War II pass away—there will be a corresponding transfer of property to their children, resulting in victims’ assets once again coming on the market. Additionally, as records and documentation that were previously unavailable are declassified or made accessible, new claims for restitution may arise. It is therefore important that dealers and auctioneers remain committed to the process of restitution.

In this respect, there are good signs. Researchers working for the major auction houses regularly seek independent scholars’ assistance as they investigate works the houses intend to sell. But how widespread and accepted this practice will become remains to be seen in a trade historically characterized by secrecy and anonymity, and as yet largely unregulated by domestic or international law.

IV. The Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States:

One of the central projects of the Presidential Commission has been to understand the policies by which the U.S. and its representatives secured and then restituted (or otherwise disposed of) assets belonging to Holocaust victims. From the outset, it was clear that a tremendous number of agencies and representatives were involved. And, as mentioned above, there was a tremendous number of assets to be restituted (2.5 million cultural objects, including some 486,000 artworks). We have found that the U.S. forces generally did a commendable job; their work was at times even heroic. This doesn’t mean that mistakes were not made, and we anticipate that the Commission’s report will describe several such mistakes.

The Commission is also focusing its attention on the import of victims’ art into the U.S. We are studying both the laws and the mechanisms that existed to apprehend victims’ assets that were flowing into the country. In July 1944, a Treasury Department decision under the Trading With the Enemy Act (T.D. 51072) created a means to screen for stolen assets: all artworks valued at $5,000 or more (or alternatively, those deemed of "artistic, historic, or scholarly interest") were subject to a thorough review, and the Roberts Commission played a central role vetting these import applications. But T.D. 51072 was suspended in June 1946—at the same time the Roberts Commission was disbanded. The decision to terminated T.D. 51072 provoked controversy: Ardelia Hall of the State Department, for example, recommended against it on the grounds that import controls needed to be maintained. The rationale for the repeal centered on the fact that "the Roberts Commission will terminate on June 30 and the Department of State lacks appropriations or personnel for clearing a mass of applications for release from Customs custody."11

As a result, governmental enforcement with respect to the import of victims’ artworks appears to have suffered. Because most of the customs records were destroyed, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to get a precise accounting of the amount of victims’ art that thus entered the U.S. But the repeal of TD 51072 must have made it easier to bring artworks of suspicious provenance into this country. We need to understand more about the complex policy and other considerations that led to this relaxation of governmental vigilance.

As our Chairman Edgar M. Bronfman has often stated, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States is committed to a critical and unvarnished investigation into the U.S. government’s treatment of assets belonging to Holocaust victims. The Commission will present its findings to the President and Congress by the end of this year. As a researcher and teacher in this area, I hope that the Commission’s work will facilitate a new wave of investigation into this dark and complicated chapter in human history.

1.  Timothy Ryback, ARTnews (12/99),149.

2.  Guenter Haase, Kunsraub und Kunstschutz (Hamburg: Georg Olms Verlag, 1991), p. 243.

3.  Konstantin Akinsha, Gregorii Kozlov, and Sylvia Hochfield, Beautiful Loot: The Soviet Plunder of Europe’s Art Treasures (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 256.

4.  Statement by Wolfgang Eichwede to author, 8 December 1998.

5.  American Association of Museums Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era.

6.  National Archives Record Administration, College Park (NARA/CP), Record Group (RG) 59, entry 62D-4, Box 1, memoranda from the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments and the Department of State, dated 1945 and 1950 respectively.

7.  National Archives, College Park, Record Group 260, entry 1, box 373, Office of the Military Government for Bavaria, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Monthly Consolidated Field Report, March 1948, p. 52.

8.  Aharon Appelfeld, "Buried Homeland," in The New Yorker 23 November 1998, pp. 48-61.

9.  Ibid., p. 61.

10.  The histories of individual Eastern European countries vary considerably. In Czechoslovakia, for example, private individuals could claim back stolen property between 1946 and 1948 and then again after the Velvet Revolution from 1992 to 1996. Now restitution depends upon the goodwill of the state and much of the unclaimed nationalized property was transferred from the central government to municipalities. This complicates the claims process even further.

11.  NARA/CP, RG 59, entry 1, box 1, Assistant Chief, Division of Economic Security Controls to the Director of Foreign Funds Control of the Treasury Department, 28 June 1946.


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