Morality, Accuracy, and the Future of Restitution: Thoughts on the “From Refugees to Restitution” Conference (March 2017)

In March 2017 I attended the From Refugees to Restitution: The History of Nazi-Looted Art in the UK in Transnational Perspective conference in Cambridge, UK. The topics covered by the conference addressed several interesting areas such as the economics of war with regards to safehaven (‘Operation Safehaven’ (1944-49): Framing the postwar discussion on restitution of Nazi-looted art through British lenses’- paper by Marc Masurovsky of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (https://www.facebook.com/plunderedart/) as well as considerations of whether restitution efforts are currently more reliant on moral regulation than legislation, and whether or not this reliance is problematic (Panel I. A Paradigm Shift? From Legal to Moral Solutions in Restitution Practice; papers by Debbie De Girolamo, Tabitha I. Oost, and Evelien Campfens). The full program for the conference can be accessed via http://www.lootedart.com/RWDER4960671.

I would like to point out a few instances where I thought the discussion was really thought provoking, and would love to hear some thoughts on how we can address these topics in the future.

Firstly, I was intrigued by the issue of whether a victim’s claim should trump the greater interest of preserving historical knowledge of Holocaust-era events (Debbie De Girolamo, Queen Mary, University of London; Panel I). For example, should an individual’s personal possessions (a suitcase, book, or handkerchief) or artworks created at a concentration camp be returned to that individual or their family, or preserved in a museum where they are currently on display? The discussions of Panel II (Losing Art/Losing Identity: The Emotions of Material Culture) included mention of efforts to educate claimants on the benefits of keeping Nazi-confiscated art and artifacts in museums to provide a comprehensive basis for future research and public education programs. It was also discussed that museums often offer better means of preserving these items than claimants are able to provide. Lastly, the emotional power of objects is astounding, and the strong spiritual relationships with objects that an individual can develop should be taken into consideration when pursing restitution or advocating for an item to remain within a museum setting. I hope that increases in proactive provenance research in museums and other institutions will continue to lead to positive relationships with claimants, and lead to the return of these items to museums for use in public educational programs (a solution that has been effective in the Israel Museum as discussed by Shlomit Steinberg, Roundtable I).

Secondly, is a valid legal claim reliant on morality? Should it be? Or is morality too subjective? As Marc Masurovsky commented, claimants rely on moral policing because they have nothing else… they have been failed by the complications of the legal system (paraphrased by me; comments during Panel I discussion). Advisory boards (such as the UK Spoliation Advisory Panel https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/spoliation-advisory-panel) that are tasked with assessing restitution claims can issue recommendations (for state collections) or legally binding expert opinions for objects not in state care. Some countries established these panels to compensate for the statute of limitations outlined in most post-war legislation. Other examples of compensation include the U.S. Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, through which statutes of limitations now extend to six years after the discovery of the location or possessory interest of an artwork (https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/2763). Tabitha Oost and Evelien Campfens (Lieden University) discussed a primary issue in moral policing as the un-clarity of what is considered ‘Nazi-looted art’ and ‘confiscation’.

Overall, access to justice by claimants is limited and the legal process can take decades, which prompted a further discussion of whether the digitization of provenance records as they are, without verification, can cause as much damage to research efforts as it can benefits to claimants searching for their collections. One problem with moral policing included the dependence on the moral perceptions of the people currently sitting on the panel, or in the court, on a particular day. Does moral reliance mean that claimants don’t have to prove ownership as thoroughly? And is this fair given that the information to which they have access is extremely limited?

How do we resolve these questions and concerns? Is a new conceptual framework that moves away from distinct moral and legal reliance, but is adaptable to issues within each dispute and the diversity of values sufficient (solution as proposed by De Girolamo)? While it is important to be consistent and objective in the standards of restitution, my questions reside in the reasonable expectation of the development of such a framework. Just how adaptable IS the legislation? Is it too early to determine the long-term success of added legislation including the U.S. Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act? Since the moral decisions of panels are dependent on the opinions of the current panel members at a particular time, is there a risk that these decisions will be refuted later, as often happens in the case of connoisseurs evaluating authenticity? Clear definitions of a ‘fair and just’ assessment of a restitution claim are absolutely necessary. The only way to determine the realities of developing such a model is to start the discussion of what this model should incorporate.

This conference was extremely productive and stimulating. I was inspired by the attendance of claimants and the willingness of persons in all fields to share their personal experiences to contribute to the discussions. I believe these events will prompt a lengthy discussion in the art world of how we can effectively and efficiently aid future restitution efforts and address the concerns of both claimants and researchers in the field of Nazi-era restitution. I would like to thank Dr. Bianca Gaudenzi, Dr. Lisa Niemeyer, Julia Rickmeyer, and Victoria Louise Steinwachs for such an inspiring and educational event and I truly look forward to the outcome of these discussions!

Particularly, I would love to hear additional discourse on the issues and benefits of publicizing provenance information for museum collections without first verifying each documented ownership history. Please post any thoughts below or feel free to email me and communicate further!

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