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European Legislator Has New Plan to Resolve Issues of Looted Artwork

May 8, 2003
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A member of the European Parliament is proposing that governments across the Continent adopt common laws and standards to solve the problem of Nazi-looted art.

The proposal is being drafted by Willy De Clercq, a former deputy prime minister of Belgium, who also suggests setting up a special tribunal to resolve disputes over looted art.

“My action might come across as being unexpected, but it’s time that we deal with this issue, once and for all,” De Clercq told JTA.

If so, it would be the first time that looted art has been addressed at the E.U. level.

“Sadly, the general performance in the field of art recovery has been the least effective of all restitution,” said Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Claims Conference.

Singer said he was eager to work with De Clercq to create a uniform standard for both old and new members of the European Union.

In most European countries, courts decide disputes relating to stolen goods during the Nazi period.

“The key problem is that different laws are applied in different countries,” said Charles Goldstein of the Commission for Art Recovery, a U.S.-based organization that has pressed European governments to find a common solution.

“If a property was stolen in Budapest, dropped in Austria or taken to Russia, then the claimant’s request depends on the law of the country where it was found,” he explained. “The E.U. can change this by creating common machinery for dispute resolution.”

But De Clercq’s draft is only a first step in the long decision-making process. Before the initiative can become reality, the project must be approved by European Parliament.

Then both the E.U.’s executive body and the majority of governments must adopt it.

Thousands of major artworks still have gaps in their provenance that are traceable to the wartime period. Some of them circulate in museum collections.

As a result, individual claimants, museums and art dealers still face a bewildering array of legal problems to recover their property.

When the European Union adds 10 new countries next year, the problem likely will become even more complex and complicated.

According to De Clercq, around 170 cases are pending today in courts across Europe, including Russia. All face the same legal problems and a cumbersome procedure.

“Every time, you need to establish the origin of a work of art,” he explained. “You must then assess how to account for the legal gap in ownership.”

But that’s not the end of the story: It’s then necessary to identify the “good faith” purchaser and assess his or her rights.

Experts have explored several possible solutions. For example, governments could open their archives — and some are pressing the idea of creating an international database that would facilitate research and provide a way for victims to list lost items.

Asked if he has encountered opposition to his ideas, De Clercq said other members of the Parliament haven’t expressed much interest in the topic.

“I am particularly surprised at the lack of response from the Jewish communities, who have not reacted to my proposal,” he said — although he admitted that the project might still be too new to have attracted much attention.

Some European countries have tackled the problem of looted art much more aggressively than others.

“France, the Netherlands and Germany are at the top of the list of those who did the right thing and examined their holdings,” said Goldstein, who works with experts in the field.

Russia also is a success story: It passed a law in 1998 that authorizes Jews to reclaim their property.

“Hungary is the worst country on the performance list,” Goldstein said. “Authorities actively oppose all attempts by Jews to reclaim their heritage.”

Goldstein stressed how important it would be for Eastern and Central European countries, such as Hungary, Poland and Ukraine, to comply with Western standards on art restitution issues.

De Clercq’s proposal comes as Jewish leaders are rethinking their efforts on art restitution.

Singer said the WJC, WJRO and the Claims Conference are reassessing their “entire program” on the subject. The problem of looted art has been placed on the agenda of the WJC’s next executive meeting, scheduled to begin May 18.

“We will address this question, as well as the inconclusive and unsuccessful efforts that have been made in the field of art restitution,” he said.

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