Early last month, Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, for the second time met in Washington, D.C. with key stakeholders in the movement for restitution of works of art looted by the Nazis—including museum representatives, claimants, and attorneys specializing in Nazi-era art litigation—in preparation for the June 26-30 international conference “Holocaust Era Assets” taking place in Prague. The purpose of the Prague conference is to analyze the progress made in the wake of the landmark 1998 Washington Conference, which developed principles for resolving Holocaust asset issues, including claims regarding Nazi-confiscated works of art, and to improve upon current research and restitution practices.
One of the key issues of the meeting concerned the potential establishment of a U.S. national commission to assist in the resolution of claims to Nazi-confiscated works of art and what role such a body would play in the international community. As one participant noted, claimants’ first actions toward restitution are often ad hoc and therefore quickly break down into adversarial conflict; a national commission or other structured means for expediting the processing of claims would lead to an increased number of just and fair results. Museum representatives suggested that a new institution is not warranted because the success of mediation results in only a minority of claims reaching the litigation stage. One suggestion was the establishment of a national version of New York’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office, which assists claimants in research and recovery efforts. A national entity, whether in the form of a commission or modeled after New York’s HCPO, would be a monumental step for claimants, who often face barriers such as the high cost of research when pursuing claims on their own, and it could play an important role as an example for other nations to follow.
Most at the Washington meeting were of the mindset that a primary objective of the Prague conference should be to convince countries to improve upon the means for reaching the merits of the asset-theft claims, which are often countered on statute of limitations or similar legal grounds that would otherwise result in their dismissal early in the litigation process or generally prevent restitution on technical rather than equitable grounds. There were also calls for more resources for provenance research and disclosure of available information to both sides in contested claims.
In his concluding remarks, Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union who will head the U.S. delegation to the Prague conference, underscored the importance of maintaining a perspective that “steps back…and looks at the seminal event itself and the theft that accompanied it; everything else flows from that.” He continued, “I think the important point is that everyone who has come in this room, with very disparate ideas, and disparate interests and representations, has been very constructive in trying to come to the core issue of achieving justice in an expeditious way.”