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Guidelines set for returning Nazi-looted art

Conference calls for 'just and fair solution'

Stolen Nazi Art
The World Jewish Congress says the Nazis seized up to $30 billion worth of art  
December 3, 1998
Web posted at: 3:34 p.m. EST (2034 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An international conference on Nazi-looted assets of Holocaust victims ended Thursday with agreement that paintings confiscated from Jews, including Picassos and Cezannes, could be returned to prewar owners or their heirs or auctioned to benefit Holocaust survivors.

"The art world will never be the same in the way it deals with Nazi-confiscated art," said Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of state and head of the U.S. delegation sponsoring the Washington conference.

"From now on," he said, "the sale, purchase, exchange and display of art from this period will be addressed with greater sensitivity and a higher international standard of responsibility."

The 11 non-binding principles adopted at the conference would impose on countries a moral commitment to identify and publicize stolen works so the original owners can claim them.

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"This is a major achievement which will reverberate through our museums, galleries, auction houses and in the homes and hearts of those families who may now have the chance to have returned what is rightfully theirs," Eizenstat said.

Tracking down wartime owners

The conference brought together 44 countries, the Vatican and 13 non-governmental organizations representing Jewish art, history and insurance interests.

In their final session, delegates from country after country, including France, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, announced agreement with U.S.-drafted principles to investigate the wartime heritage of art collections around the world to determine if any works were looted.

Listen to Stuart Eizenstat's remarks on the efforts of the conference to return art stolen from Holocaust victims

(170 K / 15 sec. audio)

The guidelines suggest the return of looted works to heirs or owners or possible restitution.

"There can be no doubt about the determination of France," Louis Amigues, the French representative told delegates.

By the end of 1999, if the French government hasn't tracked down wartime owners for looted art, it will make reparations "that seem justified," Amigues said, without specifying whether it will be financial.

Insurance claims

Delegates, by consensus approval, also endorsed returning communal property such as former synagogues, schools, community centers and cemeteries to the care of Jewish groups in Eastern and Central Europe after decades of being in the hands of the Nazis or communist governments.

Outstanding life insurance claims from as many as 800,000 Jewish families would also be paid off within two years, if possible, by an international commission formed earlier this year, under another key conference principle.

Eizenstat said he was "impressed ... almost overwhelmed" by what the conference had accomplished in four days in working to set informal standards on dealing with art and communal property that remains unclaimed or outside Jewish control so many years after World War II.

Russian cooperation praised

He was especially pleased with Russia's announcement it would try to identify and return art that was looted by the Nazis and then plundered by Stalin's troops as "reparations" for Germany's wartime assault.

"The Russia delegation, in effect, opened a new chapter in restitution," Eizenstat said Wednesday. "I am confident that some of the greatest collections in the world will be returned to their rightful owners and a vast storehouse of information about other works will open up."

Obstacles remain

Still, many obstacles remain in returning what the World Jewish Congress estimates is about 110,000 pieces of "missing art" from the Holocaust that is considered looted and of unclear origin. The estimated value of the artworks is $10 billion to $30 billion, the group says.

Historical records are murky, with the passage of time. The conference called on archives to be opened for examination and for sharing information to help investigate claims and the provenance of art.

The various countries also have far different legal obligations.

France has been working diligently for two years to try to identify prewar owners or heirs of 2,058 pieces of art in government custody and museums and has put the list on the Internet. But it insists on only direct restitution and has so far rejected calls by some Jewish groups to hold an auction to benefit Holocaust survivors and their families if owners or heirs can't be found.

Eizenstat suggested museums and collectors be flexible and accept diary entries and insurance listings as evidence of prewar ownership in cases where there's no bill of sale.

The conference principles leave wide room for interpretation. In language European delegates insisted on, the principles declare, "The conference recognizes that among participating nations there are differing legal systems and that countries act within the context of their own laws."

The guidelines themselves simply call for reaching an unspecified "just and fair solution."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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