20 April 2007

Looted art: Who should have it?

This Miami Herald story discusses who best represents the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants. At issue is the Israel Museum versus a company headed by a survivor which is entrusted with locating victims' property.

The stakes are high: Although the museum says most of the roughly 1,200 paintings and items of Judaica have little monetary value, they include important paintings such as one by the early 20th century Austrian master Egon Schiele thought to be worth more than $20 million.

None of the museum's pieces has ever been claimed by survivors or heirs, the museum said. But a law passed last year requires Holocaust victims' property to be turned over to the restitution company, known as The Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of People Who Were Killed in the Holocaust.

On the other side, is company head Dutch-born Avraham Roet,78, who survived as a hidden child, and who says the museum doesn't have special status.

"The Jewish people is demanding the return of looted property around the world, and there is no reason that the Jewish people should behave differently with itself and with its own institutions," Roet told AP.

Controlled by Holocaust survivors' groups and other Jewish organizations, Roet's company is required by law to look for heirs to the recovered property, and if none are found, sell the property and distribute the money to needy survivors.

Roet maintains "the law requires the museum to turn over any artwork that might have belonged to Holocaust victims - including everything it received from the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, which took control of much unclaimed Jewish property in postwar Europe."

A New York University expert on looted art, Lucille Roussin, is quoted as saying the museum could have done more to find heirs: "The pieces have been in the basement for however many years - how can anybody claim it? You have an obligation to put it out there," she said. The article states that most of the works are not on display and are stored away.

Another expert says that the Museum should make the artwork accessible to victims and heirs on the Internet, while the museum says it is compiling an online catalog.

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