The U.S. government has abandoned plans to create an independent panel to assess claims for Nazi-looted art in museums, a State Department official said, leaving claimants with few options besides costly lawsuits.
Douglas Davidson, U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, told a conference in The Hague that a panel proposed by Stuart Eizenstat, the former Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Holocaust Issues, proved “easier to describe than to realize.” The small proportion of state-owned museums and the lack of a “culture ministry” to which the panel could report were among “far too many impediments,” Davidson said.
In what has become known as the biggest art heist in history, the Nazis seized hundreds of thousands of works from Jewish private collections between 1933 and 1945 as part of their policy of racial persecution. Thousands were returned to national governments and landed in public museums. Others entered the art market to be acquired by museums around the world without the consent or knowledge of the rightful owners.
The conference in the Hague brought together the restitution advisory panels of the U.K., Austria, Netherlands, Germany and France, established to handle a wave of art claims brought by the heirs of Nazi plunder victims and in response to an international agreement called the Washington Principles endorsed by 44 countries, including the U.S. in 1998.
“To see how far ahead of us the Europeans have come is really embarrassing,” said Thomas Kline, an attorney who specializes in art at Andrews Kurth LLP in Washington.
The Washington Principles called for a “just and fair solution” for victims of Nazi art plunder and their heirs and urged nations to develop “alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership issues.”
Delegates agreed that lawsuits are rarely the best way to decide claims of Nazi-looted art because of the complexity of the issues and the length of time since the crime. Statutes of limitations and other technical defenses are regularly applied, giving claimants little chance of success.
Nazi-loot claims can be a “lawyers’ amusement arcade,” and end up being far more expensive than the items at stake, said Norman Palmer, visiting professor of Law at King’s College London and an advisor to the U.K. Spoliation Advisory Panel.
The European panels, with the exception of the U.K., said the number of claims submitted to them shows no signs of abating. The Dutch Restitutions Committee had handled 130 cases by the end of 2011. Another 18 cases are in the pipeline.
“We expect this number to grow considerably in the future,” Dutch Culture Minister Jet Bussemaker told delegates in The Hague.
The Austrian panel had issued 274 decisions by the end of 2011, with only 29 rejecting claims.
“I don’t see an end to it,” said Eva Blimlinger, the deputy director of the Austrian restitution council. “We have 12 or 13 more cases in the pipeline.”
“There is a lot to be done,” said Michel Jeannoutot, Chair of the Commission for Compensation of Spoliation Victims in France. The commission has so far received 877 claims.
Wolf Tegethoff, a member of the German advisory panel, reported a steady increase in the number of claims in the past years and said he expects it to continue for “the next couple of decades.”
The U.K. panel has a “sunset clause” providing for it to close in 2020. Donnell Deeny, Chair of the U.K. Spoliation Advisory Panel, said the number of cases is dwindling.
“I will be surprised if there are any claims after 2020,” Deeny said.
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