The jurist who articulated the restitution of Nazi looting changes sides

New York

Updated:27/01/2022 01:48h


At the end of 2018, Stuart Eizenstat read the primer to several countries about their commitments to the return of the art stolen from jews in the holocaust. “We need to confront more honestly the breach of the promises we made,” he told a Berlin conference on countries’ regulatory and executive efforts to restitute Nazi looting.

Eizenstat, 79, is an authority on the matter. The American jurist and diplomat is perhaps the most decisive figure in the articulation of a system to return these stolen treasures to their legitimate owners. He was the main promoter and designer of the Washington Principles, a declaration in which governments, international organizations, museums and auction houses participated to achieve “fair and equitable solutions”, as well as “expedited”, to resolve claims about stolen pieces.

For decades, he has combined positions of responsibility in different US governments and recognitions – chief domestic policy adviser to Jimmy Carter, undersecretary of the Treasury and ambassador to the European Union with Bill Clinton, a member of the French Legion of Honor, recipient of the German Order of Merit – for his work on the Holocaust. He has negotiated compensation, restitution, regulatory changes…

Among the countries that Eizenstat attacked on that occasion was Spain. The reason, of course, the controversial painting by Camille Pissarro of Thyssen-Bornesmiza Museum. The descendants of Lilly Cassirer, the daughter of a Jewish collector who was seized by the Nazis in Paris, have been fighting for restitution for two decades and this month they have managed to take the case to the US Supreme Court. The museum and the Spanish Government defend that ‘Rue St. Honoré, dans l’après midi. Effet de pluie’ (1897), a Parisian urban landscape, reached the collection without its stolen origin being known. Spain “has not taken steps” to fulfill the commitments, criticized Eizenstat. “There is no self-respecting government, art dealer, private collector, museum or auction house that should trade or own Nazi-looted art,” he wrote a year later in a column in The Washington Post.

Another Pissarro has returned Eizenstat to the front page. Not because he fights for his restitution to the despoiled Jewish family. Just the opposite: now he’s on the other side. Eizenstat has been involved for the first time as a lawyer in a case of restitution of a work of art. To the surprise of many, he has done so to defend its current owner against the descendants of the Jews from whom the work was stolen, on this occasion, a scene of the port of Le Havre that the impressionist painter executed in 1903.

Eizenstat’s lurch could be a personal matter: the owner of the painting is Gerald Horowitz, whose wife, Pearlann Horowitz, is a childhood friend of the diplomat. The painting is claimed by the heirs of Ludwig y Margret Kainer, a Jewish couple who had to leave Germany and their art collection in 1932 and from whom the Nazis seized the Pissarro and the rest of the treasures as part of an unfair tax. It was auctioned off by the Nazi regime in 1935 and traces of it were lost for decades.

“Not all demands on works of art that changed hands in World War II have the same merit,” Eizenstat now defends in a statement to ‘The New York Times’, in which he moves away from the blunt position he defended in that column in the ‘Post’. “Some are clear and some are not,” he explains, adding that the Kainers’ include “complex historical issues” and “contradictory information.”

Horowitz, who, like Eizenstat, is Jewish, bought the Pissarro from a New York gallery in 1995. According to his lawyer, the buyer checked a database of stolen art to make sure the painting was legitimate. For Eizenstat, Horowitz acted “in good faith”, without being able to know that the painting came from Nazi looting (it is the same argument that Thyssen has defended about its Pissarro: Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornesmiza did not know that it was looted when he bought it in 1976 in New York for his private collection , which ended up adding to the current museum).

For the Kainers’ lawyers, Mondex Corporation -a firm dedicated to property restitution-, the case is not so simple: since 2005, the painting appears in Pissarro’s catalog raisonné as “looted from L. Kainer”; the original owners registered in 1949 the work as plundered in the Department of Indemnities and Restitutions of France, with the accompaniment of a photograph; and other works from the original collection have been auctioned off in recent years as stolen property. Mondex located the Pissarro in an exhibition at the Atlanta Museum of Art – the city where the Horowitzes are an institution of the Jewish community – and began the claim process for the Kainer heirs.

The two parties move towards an agreement to establish ownership of the painting and possible compensation. But it was inevitable that Mondex’s lawyers were surprised to find out a few months ago that they would be taking on Eizenstat. The diplomat is an institution in the United States, beyond his work on Nazi looting, in which he advises, as with his predecessors, President Joe Biden (this week, in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine and Russia, the diplomat held a public conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken). The surprise was to check the size of his rival and, above all, to see him on a different sidewalk than the one he has walked for decades.

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