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Book Review: “Fair and just solutions?” (2015)

By Adir Paner

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 9.28.58 AMSeventy years since the end of World War II, earnest efforts to restitute property, cultural and otherwise seem to be on the rise. In addition to the millions of lives lost, displaced, peoples cobbling to make a living in new homes and new lands, many millions of pieces of property remain lost and out of the reach of their rightful private and public owners. Despite the best efforts of the allied forces when finding and administering collecting points, countless pre-war art owners, such as museums, and private families (Jewish and gentile) had property confiscated by the Nazis which was not subsequently restituted.

As objects resurface and as heirs discover their legacy, steps should be taken to expeditiously achieve an equitable solution, notwithstanding the time that lapsed. Recognizing this principle, in 1998, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum co-hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. Delegations from forty-four nations and thirteen non-governmental organizations participated. The 1998 conference addressed various issues related to the confiscation of assets by the Nazis and others during the Holocaust, and was responsible for coining the the term “fair and just solutions,” which refers to the norm for the assessment of ownership claims to Nazi-looted art, as codified in the Washington Principles in 1998. While more than 40 nations became signatories to the Washington Principles, five nations (Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) went so far as to organize committees to review claims brought by claimants seeking recovery of cultural property, lost as a result of widespread and large-scale crimes committed by the Nazi regime.

Published in 2015, Fair and just solutions? is a compilation of essays presented during an eponymous international symposium at the Peace Palace in The Hague that took place in November 2012. The question mark in the title alludes to the lack of clarity surrounding this norm. What is ‘fair and just’? Many millions of people paid the ultimate sacrifice, losing more than just their valuables in the last century. Is it possible to find a fair and just solution to a problem that is much more expansive than mere loss of property? Additionally, how do we resolve competing interests of merit between victims of Nazi oppression, and the blameless institutions which acquired and cared for the art through no fault of their own?

The 2015 volume edited by Campfens, contains expert opinions aimed at evaluating the status quo in the field of non-governmental restitution claims to Nazi-looted art and at discussing the legal framework for ownership claims by heirs or dispossessed owners.

Fair and just solutions? delivers a detailed account and perspective on international claims for looted property. The editor responsible for organizing the 2012 conference in the Hague, Evelien Campfens, is a renowned attorney and historian as well as the Inaugural Director of the Dutch Restitutions Committee. For thirteen years, Campfens lead the research team and oversaw the coordination of cases and preparation of advisory opinions. Campfens’ extensive background put her in a strategic position to gather and assemble key pieces of restitution history and to offer her critique on them. 

Fair and just solutions? documents the information discussed in the conference, providing guidance for those who were unable to attend in 2012, as well as for newcomers to the field. Through the valuable contributions by attorneys and historians practicing in the U.K. and Continental Europe, a compilation of opinions by leading experts, and a discussion amongst stakeholders, Fair and just solutions? explores a way to move forward toward ultimate resolution of the Nazi-era art claims. As a result, it serves as an excellent resource for all those interested in the subject matter, including law students, educators, potential claimants, and attorneys involved in the restitution of art.

The books recurrent themes include: (1) the status quo with regard to the ‘fair and just solutions’ norm that was introduced in the 1998 Washington Principles, presented at the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets; (2) the procedures available to claimants; and (3) how things stand in terms of international cooperation in expeditiously achieving a fair and just solution.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each contributed by a different author, including inter alia the former U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Douglas Davidson, expert advisor to the U.K. Spoliation Advisory Panel Professor Norman Palmer, and former counsel to the Dutch Parliament Rob Polak. Opening with Campfens’ account of the “Old and New Rules for Looted Art” which analyzes instruments of soft and hard international law, the book progresses through important concepts highlighted by other experts.

The book also contains intriguing interviews with claimants. One such contribution entitled “Ultimately the Applicant Needs to Feel that Justice has Been Done,” recapitulates an interview with two great-grandchildren of Samuel van den Bergh, who describe their claims for a Persian medallion carpet in the Netherlands. It is a rare opportunity for restitution historians and pupils to learn of first hand experiences in the restitution process.  

In the introduction, Campfens points out that it is impossible to thoroughly explore all topics related to Holocaust restitution, such as the differences between the approach of different nations to restitution claims. Notwithstanding Campfens disclaimer and the relatively brief nature of the volume, the detailed appendices provide valuable sources for obtaining more information. Featured are several declarations, resolutions, and governmental acts pertinent to the restitution of confiscated property (e.g., Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated Art, UNESCO Declaration of Principles Relating to Cultural Objects Displaced in Connection with the Second World War etc.) The general layout of the book spotlights the key documents in the development of international restitution law.

The lists of hard law (binding legal obligations in the international arena), procedure and legal instruments that appear within the chapters as well as in the addendum to the volume may be dull at times, but it is necessary to analyze the statutory impediments and distinguish legal procedures amongst other things for this book to accomplish its informative purpose. The issue is mostly alleviated by the book’s structure; Campfens is careful to include only material that she found essential to the understanding the restitution process.

Owing to the fact that Fair and just solutions? is a compilation of articles by multiple authors, the chapters may be pertinent to a diverse readership. Additionally, editors organized the book in short paragraphs with headers, making it simple for the reader to follow. Each chapter is supplemented with a brief conclusion, either commentary by the editor or key points summarized by the contributing authors, which makes for a useful dénouement—summarizing key points. Overall, Fair and just solutions? serves as a readable and informative reference on the evolution of the law on restitution, an analysis of international practice, and suggestions for future approaches to Holocaust-related claims.

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From the Editors: On December 2, 2015, Evelien Campfens will discuss the book and the recent cases involving restitution efforts at the first international Art Law Mixer in London. The event will be held at Stephen Ongpin Fine Art Gallery. For additional details please visit our calendar of events or contact Center for Art Law.

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*About the Author: Adir Paner is a Center for Art Law Legal Intern (Fall 2015) as a part of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law Holocaust Restitution Claims Practicum.