Compensation for Restitution Experts

Elise Viebeck, a student writer for the Claremont Independent has an outstanding article about the conflicts of interest which arise when history and art history experts are brought in to assist the heirs of victims who lost valuable art to the Nazis during World War II. She details the actions of a CMC History Professor, Jonathan Petropoulos.

The article asks an important question: How should these experts, whose specialized knowledge can bring about the restitution of ultra-valuable masterworks be compensated? Swiss prosecutor Ivo Hoppler raided a Swiss safe in the Summer of 2007 as part of a “three-nation probe of a German art dealer accused of conspiring with an American at historian to withold a painting by French impressionist”. I talked about the discovery of the work at issue, Camille Pisarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps last summer, but was unaware of this controversy.

Here’s an excerpt of Viebeck’s interesting story:

The story of the Pissarro begins with Zurich resident Gisela Fischer, 78, who is of Jewish descent. She and her family fled Vienna in 1938 two days after the Nazi Anschluss. The Gestapo looted their home, and among the stolen items was a painting by impressionist Camille Pissarro, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps.

After the war, Fischer’s father successfully located and reclaimed many of his family’s stolen assets. After her father’s death in 1995, Fischer concentrated her efforts on the Pissarro which had remained elusive. In early 2001, she registered the painting with the Art Loss Register (ALR), a London-based for-profit company involved in stolen art recovery.

The ALR began to research the painting’s provenance, or history of ownership, in the hope of ascertaining its location. There was no initial financial arrangement, as at that time the ALR did not charge for Holocaust and World War II art claims…

On January 8, 2007, at a meeting in Munich, a representative of the ALR gave Fischer a message from Petropoulos. He wrote in a letter dated December 7, 2006 that he had located the painting in Switzerland and was communicating with an unnamed contact of its owner. The owner was a “foundation created by the heirs of the person who purchased [the painting] in 1957.”

The foundation, he wrote, wished to remain anonymous.

Two days after the meeting in Munich, Radcliffe also sent Fischer a letter, this time to request a finder’s fee for the organization’s success in finding the Pissarro in Switzerland. Despite its earlier commitment not to charge Holocaust claimants, the company had changed its charging policy for Holocaust art claims, telling claimants that the company could complete restitution “at far less cost and often more efficiently” than the expensive lawyers who took some cases. The meeting with the ALR in January 2007 was the first Fischer knew of the ALR’s changed policy…

For the Pissarro case, Radcliffe proposed an elaborate compensation scheme, including 20 percent of the first $1 million, 15 percent of the second million and 10 percent of any additional value of the painting. Included in his price was a stipend for Professor Petropoulos, who had requested $100,000 from the ALR for his services.

In a letter dated January 23, Fischer’s lawyer, Dr. Norbert Kückelmann, rejected the ALR’s proposal. Three days later Petropoulos met with Fischer at the Hotel St. Gotthart in Zurich to try a new arrangement…

Radcliffe and Sarah Jackson of the Art Loss Register also went to Zurich, only to find themselves excluded from the dealings. “We went expecting to be included in the meetings with Ms. Fischer only to discover that they had already had meetings without us. We realized we had been cut out,” Radcliffe told the CI.

At the hotel, Petropoulos and Peter Griebert, a Munich art dealer, showed her digital photos of the Pissarro, claiming to have taken them that morning. According to an account published in ARTNews magazine, they did not give further details about its location or the identity of its owners at that time.

It’s a very interesting account, and I don’t think Petropoulos, nor even the Art Loss Register are painted in a favorable light based on this account. Though much nazi restitution litigation rests on the assumption that the law should compensate the victims of the holocaust and other misappropriation, the engine driving these claims are the large sums of money these works can bring at auction. I think an interesting issue which needs to be researched in more detail is how and to what extent these restitution experts owe a duty to claimants.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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