In 2018, a Dutch court issued a highly controversial ruling, allowing an Amsterdam museum to keep a Nazi-looted painting for free, saying this would serve the “public interest” better than returning the artwork to its rightful Jewish owners.
The decision was panned by Holocaust restitution activists as an outrageous miscarriage of justice, with the potential of undoing decades of progress.
Following an international outcry, the city last year disregarded the court ruling and made the Stedelijk Museum return the Wassily Kandinsky work to the heirs of the art dealer from whom the Nazis stole it, bringing the claim to a close.
On Tuesday, Ellen Germain, the US State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, pointed to the case as offering a valuable lesson for other countries on “best practices for restitution of Nazi-looted art.”
Speaking in London at a first-of-its-kind summit with eight of her counterparts from around the world, Germain said the Dutch example “is a case where legal complications arose, and were solved in a satisfactory manner. That’s exactly the sort of cases we came here to examine and learn from so that governments can build on each other’s experience.”
In 1998, over 40 countries signed the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which contains a roadmap for restitution. However, 25 years later, more than 100,000 paintings out of approximately 600,000 that the Nazis stole remain unreturned, according to German media outlet Deutsche Welle.
Mark Weitzman, chief operating officer of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, or WJRO, said during a press conference at the gathering that “whereas significant gaps in restitution remain, there are also positive developments and successes.”
He noted Latvia, whose parliament last year voted in favor of a long-awaited restitution plan in which authorities agreed to pay more than $40 million to the country’s Jewish community of about 10,000 people over the coming decade. Lithuania, meanwhile, has earmarked $38 million as compensation for private-owned property that Jews lost there in the Holocaust, when 90% of the community was murdered by the Nazis and local collaborators.
But “some problems persist,” said Eric Pickles, UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, who hosted the meeting. Pickles said it would be “undiplomatic” to name problematic countries.
WJRO has long called on Poland to address private-owned, heirless property, which Polish officials say can be claimed through the civil court system but which restitution activists say requires special legislation. Estimates vary on the value of such property, with some saying it’s worth billions of dollars.
In addition to the United States and Britain, the meeting had representatives from Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, France and Croatia, as well as Israel. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany was also represented.
While this week’s conference focused mostly on art restitution, Germain invited the delegates to the United States for a follow-up meeting that would focus on other aspects.