The Last Nazi Art Scandal Will the Return of the Looted Art Treasures of Europe, after 50 Years, Mark the Final Chapter of the Holocaust?

By LeBor, Adam | The Independent (London, England), November 18, 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Last Nazi Art Scandal Will the Return of the Looted Art Treasures of Europe, after 50 Years, Mark the Final Chapter of the Holocaust?


LeBor, Adam, The Independent (London, England)


They have been called the last POWs, the paintings and sculptures that once graced the salons of pre-war Europe's Jewish bourgeoisie, from Berlin to Bucharest. While their owners vanished in the maelstrom of the Holocaust, their art collections were systematically looted by the Third Reich, a regime as rapacious as it was murderous. In 1945, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York estimated that the value of artwork plundered by the Nazis amounted to $2.5bn.

Now, over five decades after the war's end, governments are launching a concerted drive to return looted art. At the end of this month, representatives of dozens of countries will meet in Washington DC, at the Conference on Holocaust Era assets. Plundered art will be high on the agenda, as delegates try and piece together the parts of the jigsaw, scattered all over the world, that makes up the art collections stolen and broken up.

There is much to discuss. A report released yesterday by the London-based Holocaust Educational Trust reveals how post-war Britain stonewalled attempts by wartime survivors to reclaim their artworks, and British officials even helped a convicted war criminal reclaim assets confiscated by Allied troops. The post-war government failed to impose safeguards of looted works of art passing through Britain, and cut-off restitution claims after 30 June 1949. Holocaust survivors, or their heirs, who attempted to reclaim their artworks were refused, even though well-connected German aristocrats and British establishment figures such as Lord Rothermere all received their collections back. The Washington Conference is the latest stage in an unprecedented world- wide bout of soul searching over the fate of the property of the Jews killed in the Holocaust, and of other victims of Nazism that began with the Swiss banks and the long-running battle to recover monies deposited in now dormant bank accounts. The wartime allies that pressured the Swiss to open their books and admit the full extent of their economic collaboration with the Third Reich suddenly realised that their own hands were less than clean. The international restitution campaign follows a conference earlier this year when 39 nations, led by the United States and including Britain, France and Germany, pledged to identify works of art looted by the Nazis, and return them. Now national museums, including British institutions, are setting up databases to determine the provenance of the works in their collections. Galleries could be forced to dismantle collections that have hung on their walls for decades, even if they believed they legitimately owned them. Why is this happening now? A world-wide desire to finally close the last chapter of the Holocaust and the collapse of the Communist bloc have both spurred on the restitution drive. The raising of the former Iron Curtain allowed Holocaust survivors to finally claim their rightful assets, no longer fearing that their governments would confiscate anything that was returned. Psychological factors also play a role, says Stephen Ward of the Holocaust Education Trust. "There is a sense that the wartime generation, both victims and those involved in looting, want to settle unfinished business while they are still alive." Britain, too, has some unfinished wartime business. Enthusiasm for battling the Nazis did not make the peacetime transition to returning artworks stolen by the Germans to their rightful owners or heirs. Officials in the British-run zones of post-war Germany and Austria based their policies of restitution on the First World War principles of dealing with governments rather than individuals. Meanwhile, Lord Rothermere managed to recover first his collection of masterpieces from Hungary, and then, in 1947, a further 15 works in Munich. Even a conviction as a war criminal was not necessarily a barrier to compensation from Britain. In 1952, the arms manufacturer Alfred Krupp claimed compensation from Britain over art treasures taken from his villa in 1945.

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