Identifying art looted by Nazis


Thefts: Though sorting ownership is still a daunting task, a Clinton commission prepares to unveil a database of works that vanished during World War II.

January 18, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - With a few computer key strokes, cyberspace visitors will soon be able to continue work that U.S. soldiers began in the rubble of post-World War II Europe.

American museums are preparing an Internet-based approach to investigating the provenance of art work that may have ended up in their collections after being looted by the Nazis. In the spring, the museums, working in cooperation with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, expect to launch a central database disclosing information on possible stolen work, even if there's no substantive question about its ownership.

"Let the information be out there," says William S. Singer, a Chicago lawyer who headed the commission's efforts on art and cultural property. "Let the chips fall where they may."

That is, let anyone considering a claim for an art work see what a museum knows about its history of ownership. Some U.S. museums have already put such information on their Web sites, but they have now agreed to a different standard of "full disclosure," including information that has not necessarily been verified by their research.

Singer spoke at a briefing this week as the commission, created in 1998, delivered its 300-page report and recommendations to President Clinton and prepared to close up shop.

The subject of stolen museum-quality art work has received considerable attention, but it's a relatively small part of an often bewildering problem of stolen assets and recovery that continues to defy resolution 55 years after World War II ended. The Clinton administration has been pressing the issue, gaining a promise of about $7 billion in restitution for Holocaust victims from European governments and companies.

In committing crimes against humanity, the Nazis also carried out "the greatest mass theft in history," says the commission's report, which details the history of how the U.S. government handled gold, securities and other valuables that it controlled during or after the war. The 21-member panel - including private citizens, members of Congress and representatives of the U.S. Departments of State, Justice and Treasury and the Army - was established to write this history and recommend how the government should proceed. The commission was not empowered to settle claims or to find suspected Nazi loot.

"The historical truth as well as the moral aspects of the study are more important than the money," says commission chairman Edgar M. Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress. Bronfman emphasized the daunting task the Allies faced immediately after the war, as the report acknowledges the U.S. government often fell short in its efforts to make restitution to those who lost property. In rushing soldiers home, rebuilding Europe and providing humanitarian aid to millions of displaced people, the matter of restitution was given a "relatively low priority," the report says.

A photograph on the report cover makes a good metaphor. A U.S. soldier is shown in a warehouse surrounded by crates brimming with forks, knives and spoons. The soldier is reaching into a crate, gingerly handling one piece of flatware, the proverbial needle in a haystack.

It may be a posed photograph - the government was, in fact, not so delicate in handling the caches soldiers found in warehouses, mines, barns, factories, trains and concentration camps as they liberated Europe in the spring of 1945.

"When U.S. forces inventoried looted securities, they sometimes listed them by stack height without noting the identity or value of the individual stock certificates," says the report. "Other inventories identified the number or boxes, crates or lots - without describing or appraising their contents. U.S. forces were ill-equipped to assess or determine the value of cultural property that they encountered."

Other factors further complicated the task of putting stolen property back in the hands of rightful owners. Assets were generally returned not to individuals but to the country of origin or to relief organizations, whose efforts to pursue restitution to individuals were not monitored by the U.S. government. In Germany, the task was left to Germans, who were often former Nazi officials themselves or in some cases resisted claims to property in which they themselves had a vested interest.

Equally difficult is the effort to find the owners of financial assets deposited by Europeans in American banks before the U.S. entered World War II, assets that were frozen after December 1941 to prevent the Nazis from using those resources . These accounts held by both victims and perpetrators in the Nazi era - many of which passed into the hands of the state governments in the absence of known heirs - were estimated in 1941 to be worth $8.5 billion.

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