The book is highly critical of the post-war Dutch government’s attitude to Jewish families who had been driven out of the country by the Nazis. Can you tell us more about this?
The post-war attitude of the Dutch government reflected a complete disregard towards returning Jews, whose property and businesses had already been dispersed among the general population. All restoration of Jewish assets would be vigorously resisted. Morality aside, the government was simply not going to risk disrupting their fragile post-war economy for the sake of a few Jews.
The book is also critical of the post-war Dutch government’s attempts to claim ownership of the stolen pieces and demand payment for them. Can you expand on this?
From 1945 to 1948 tens of thousands of looted artworks originating from the Netherlands, and recovered by the Allies, were turned over to the Dutch authorities. However no attempt was made to track down or notify the rightful owners. Instead, the original owners or their heirs had to file official claims with the authorities, hoping their possession had been returned. The complexities of proving a particular piece had belonged to one’s family were often insurmountable, unless the Holocaust survivors could provide adequate documentation. Often the best records were those of the Nazis; but they would be sealed by the Allies, classified as State secrets, until 50 years after the War.
Even if you could prove conclusively that an artwork had belonged to your family there was another catch. Any work deemed part of a financial transaction with the German enemy was considered to have been effectively forfeited, after the war, to the new Dutch State. This was still true even when it was obvious that a particular Jewish victim could not have benefited ultimately from a forced sale. The Nazis notoriously paid rock-bottom amounts (for artworks) into frozen Jewish accounts, only to empty those accounts completely at a later date.
Despite the obvious loss to countless Dutch Jewish families, the government would rarely consider the possibility of restitution and then only with the provision that the heirs of the victim ‘compensate’ the Dutch State for the amount supposedly received from the Nazi looters.
In most cases the artworks were just absorbed into the Dutch national collection.
In the book, you talk about how the Swiss were ‘eager collaborators, not only in the looted-art trade, but later in providing safe harbor for Nazi gold and other assets’. Can you tell us more about this?
In theory Switzerland remained neutral during WWII, but in practice Switzerland was an active partner with Nazi Germany. They acted as a convenient go-between for Western companies still prepared to do business with Germany, all-the-while maintaining full co-operation in banking and trade. Switzerland acted as a fence for the looted art Germany did not want to keep and as a vital source of foreign currency. Then at the end of the war many Nazis chose to hide their ill-gotten gains in Switzerland rather than turn them over to the victorious Allies.
The Swiss authorities also assisted in the Nazi persecution of Jews by turning back most German Jews who attempted to cross the Swiss-German border — in many cases the Swiss police actively handed over Jewish refugees to the Nazi police. Even before the war, in 1938, the head of the Swiss police recommended to the Germans that they stamp a big red J on all Jews’ passports.
During the legal struggles you faced to claim back the Degas painting, you say ‘the burden of proof lies with the victims’. Who do you think should be responsible for proving the provenance of a piece — the dealer, or the person/museum paying for it?
Both - The person or institution buying an artwork should insist on supporting documents, and the dealer selling it has a duty to make sure the provenance is complete and transparent — far too often the Holocaust-era appears as a glaring gap in the provenance of many artworks.
Daniel Searle paid $850,000 for the Degas and was later forced to give back half of the painting's proceeds to your family and donate the other half. As far as I can tell, he wasn’t compensated at all for the money he spent, even though he had no idea he was buying a stolen painting. Is this true and do you think it is fair?
My grandparents were murdered and all their worldly possessions taken away — are you seriously asking me if I think Daniel Searle, of all people, was unfairly treated!
Searle was an extremely rich man who bought a painting without bothering to check where it had come from. Ignorance is no defense. If you buy stolen property, whether you realize it or not, it still remains stolen property, under U.S. law at least, no matter how many times it changes hands.
Anyway Searle actually got a tax break for the equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars.
Are there any governments, organizations or individuals who you feel have been particularly obstructive to reclaiming your family’s stolen pieces?
The Swiss government has created more obstacles than most concerning the recovery of stolen property. The issuance of “good title” to any so-called good faith buyer, in Switzerland, was a convenient laundering system for looted works during and after WWII.
Meanwhile neither Italy nor Poland or even Britain actually have restitution laws that permit the physical return of Holocaust-era looted art ...