Few people have done more to advance the cause of people seeking to recover property lost to the Nazis during World War II than Stuart E. Eizenstat.
As a diplomat and lawyer, Mr. Eizenstat, 79, has advised five U.S. administrations, including that of President Biden, on Holocaust issues. He negotiated with European governments and corporations, recovering more than $8 billion for Holocaust survivors and their families, and helped draft the Washington Principles on the Return of Looted Works of Art, a treaty now used around the world to “promptly” promote “fair and equitable solutions”. refund requests.
“No self-respecting government, art dealer, private collector, museum or auction house should trade or own Nazi-looted art,” Eizenstat said in a 2019 essay.
But, as a lawyer, Mr. Eizenstat had never involved himself in an individual restitution case. That changed a few months ago when he agreed to help a childhood friend whose family is being sued by the heirs of a Jewish couple whose art collection was seized by the Nazis.
Since 2015, relatives of Ludwig and Margret Kainer have pursued a claim over a painting by Pissarro, the Impressionist master, which was once part of the Kainers’ collection. Last May, the heirs sued the family of Gerald D. Horowitz, and within weeks Mr. Eizenstat, a childhood friend of Mr. Horowitz’s wife, Pearlann Horowitz, agreed to work at the family name.
“Different claims of works of art that changed hands during World War II have different merits; some are clear and some are not,” Mr. Eizenstat said in a statement to The New York Times last week. “Our investigation of the historical facts regarding this painting has convinced us that it is less than a clear statement that raises complex historical issues and includes conflicting information.”
Mr Eizenstat said Mr Horowitz, who bought the painting from a New York dealer in 1995, acted in good faith, without any sense, there was a cloud over its title. He said his efforts to reach an amicable settlement were consistent with his life’s work and that the two parties had reached an agreement in principle.
“I believed,” he said in his statement, “I was uniquely qualified to undertake the task of finding a ‘fair and equitable solution’ for both parties, as provided for in the Washington principles of which I was one of the main negotiators.”
Although Mr. Eizenstat’s clients are themselves Jewish, the optics of his first appearance in a restitution case, not on the side of the plaintiffs, but of the defendants, surprised some experts in the field.
“I think it’s unusual for him to show such limited support for the plaintiffs,” said Lynn H. Nicholas, a historian and expert on Nazi looting whose 1994 book, “The Rape of Europe,” is credited with have drawn attention to the scope of the problem. “But I don’t know all the details and he may have good reasons.”
The painting, ‘L’Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre’, an oil on canvas from 1903, depicts a port scene and was part of the Kainers’ collection when the couple left Germany in 1932, eventually settling in France, according to court documents. . Unable, as Jews, to return safely after the Nazi takeover, the Kainers stayed away and, in their absence, their world-class art collection and other furnishings were seized by the Berlin tax office, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Georgia by 15 Kainer heirs.
In 1935, more than 400 Kainer possessions, including the Pissarro and 31 other paintings, were auctioned off in Berlin, according to the lawsuit, to pay a Reich theft tax, a financial instrument often used to punish Jews who fled the country. In 1963, a German appeals court ruled that the tax levied on the Kainers had been discriminatory, according to James Palmer, founder of Mondex Corporation, a company that pursues restitution claims and represents the Kainer heirs. Additionally, the Kainer heirs have a catalog page from the 1935 auction that references the painting.
The painting’s path for the next 60 years is not entirely clear, although it was owned for a time, Mr Palmer says, by a German industrialist who bought it at auction.
In 1995 Mr. Horowitz bought it from Achim Moeller Fine Art in New York, but only after checking with a respected database that tracks looted artwork. The table was not listed.
In 2014, the Horowitz family lent the work for display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, at which point it was identified by Mondex, who were already working with the Kainer heirs. The Kainers had died in the 1960s childless, and their current heirs claiming the painting are the children and grandchildren of cousins.
The heirs sought the painting’s return in 2015 and presented the Horowitz family with evidence that in 2005 the painting was listed in Pissarro’s catalog raisonné as looted “from L. Kainer,” according to court documents.
But Mr Palmer said the Horowitzes did not want to pursue discussions because they did not know who the rightful heirs were. (At the time, a foundation set up by Swiss bank officials was set up to serve as an heir to the Kainers and Margret’s father. But in 2015, a German court found that Kainer’s parents, not the foundation , were the true heirs of the couple. )
More recently, Kainer’s relatives presented additional evidence to support their claim, according to their court documents, including documents showing that the Kainer couple had registered the artwork as looted with the French Department of Reparations and Restitutions. , who published a recording of the work, along with a photograph, in 1949.
And auction houses treated several other paintings from the Kainers’ collection that had been sold alongside the Pissarro in 1935 as looted property. In 2009, for example, Christie’s sold Edgar Degas’ Dancers, once owned by the Kainers, for nearly $11 million under a restitution agreement. (At the time, the agreement recognized the Swiss foundation, not relatives, such as heirs.)
Mr. Palmer said Mr. Eizenstat began advising the Horowitzes some time after the Kainer heirs took their claim to court, according to Mr. Palmer, and is assisting attorney on the case, Joseph A. Patella.
Mr. Palmer said he was a bit intimidated when Mr. Eizenstat joined the negotiations, which are being led by the Kainer heirs’ attorney, Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Eizenstat worked in the Carter administration as a senior domestic policy adviser and served as assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. His many awards include France’s Legion d’Honneur. Last year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gave him its highest honor for working “tirelessly to ensure a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors.”
“He deals with governments and politics and deals on a much larger macro level,” Mr. Palmer said, “so for him to be involved on a very personal level, it was a surprise.”
Mr. Eizenstat said in his statement that he joined the effort in part because Mr. Horowitz suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to defend himself.
“The Horowitz family is a pillar of Atlanta’s Jewish and secular community, with a record of philanthropic support for a wide variety of charities, including the Atlanta Holocaust Survivor Support Fund,” said Mr. Eizenstat said in the statement.
A sticking point in the negotiations, Mr Eizenstat said, was that Ludwig Kainer “appears to have knowingly made false statements about the circumstances of the alleged confiscation of the Pissarro, and knew full well who possessed it after the war”.
He did not say what these false allegations were. However, Mr. Palmer acknowledged that Mr. Kainer had misled the French authorities around the time he filed his first complaint by reporting that the painting had been lost in France. Mr Palmer defended Mr Kainer’s decision, saying that at the time Mr Kainer could not afford a lawyer to file a lawsuit in Germany and did not believe he would get justice there -low. He also did not know the location of the painting, which Mr Palmer said was required to file a claim with German authorities.
Although the negotiations appear to have been successful, there have been some bumps in the road. Last week, before an agreement was reached, Mr. Eizenstat said that settlement talks with Mr. Carter had “advanced productively up to this shocking breach of trust and inappropriate conduct by Mondex, making sensational allegations to the press regarding a confidential settlement”. negotiations. »
Mr. Eizenstat also noted in his statement that Mondex is a for-profit company, saying: “It is well known that Mondex acts and receives compensation for the Holocaust claims of others.
Mr Palmer said part of the fees collected by the company are to be used to cover the costs it incurs in pursuing restitution claims, “which we do with passion and pride”.
He said there was no agreement to keep the talks confidential. “Certainly a ‘fair and equitable’ solution requires candor and transparency,” Palmer said. But, he said, most importantly, the tentative agreement “is a very productive outcome for all parties involved.”
Mr. Palmer added that during the negotiations he told Mr. Eizenstat that it was an honor to work with him. “I told him we wouldn’t have existed without him, so I thanked him,” he said. “I am very aware of the contribution he has made to the rest of the world.”