April 23, 2012

HARP's Public Letter to Senator Leahy to Withdraw S.2212/H. R. 4086 (the "Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act" from any consideration or vote


April 15, 2012

The Honorable Patrick J. Leahy
Chairman
Committee on the Judiciary
United States Senate
224 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

RE: S. 2212

Dear Senator Leahy:

I am currently Goldman Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts at Georgetown University, and former Director and Curator of the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC, where I curated over 80 exhibitions. I am also the co-founder and Director of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (“HARP”), and have spent the past 14 years researching and consulting on the issue of Nazi-plundered art.

In my capacity as a HARP Director, I respectfully ask that the Senate withdraw S.2212/H.R. 4086, the “Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act” from any consideration or vote.

The effect of passing S. 2212 would be nothing short of disastrous for Holocaust survivors who may have looted art claims, as well as source countries with claims for the return of looted antiquities and other artworks.

First, the language of S. 2212 raises a number of significant issues. 

The bill, which was already passed in the House of Representatives as H.R. 4086, without consultation or solicitation from all interested parties, only focuses a “Nazi” exception just on "Nazi", but not on "Axis" related activities.  Because the bill only covers governments occupied by Nazi Germany or governments that were allies of Nazi Germany, it eliminates claims involving objects from countries occupied, annexed or controlled by non-Nazi Axis powers, i.e. Japan and Italy.  Therefore, all claims involving objects from the following countries would be excluded: British Somaliland, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Albania, several regions of Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia-Slovenia, Korea, Formosa (Taiwan), South Karafuto, Manchuria, several regions of mainland China, Portuguese Timor, Hong Kong, French Indochina, Thailand, Burma, British New Guinea, the Philippines, Malaya, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, several regions of Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei, British North Borneo, Nauru, the Dutch East Indies, Guam, Imphal, Wake Island, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Christmas island, Attu and Kiska.  Such an effect cannot be considered acceptable.

Additionally, the so-called “Nazi” exception in the bill would exclude all objects obtained from forced sales or other forms of looting or plunder not executed directly by Nazi forces, or from forced sales or other transactions apparently legal in form or purporting to be voluntarily effected, when in fact the intent was to deprive Holocaust victims of their property, rights and interests in artworks.  Again, such an effect from this bill cannot be considered acceptable, given that most of the recent looted art cases involve non-direct acts of looting and dispossession of artworks.

Beyond the Nazi exception and its exceedingly narrow definition of Nazi-plundered art, this bill will result in making the coming of all other kinds of plundered art into the United States immune not just from seizure, but from being recognized as plundered.  In fact, in its most disastrous effect, the bill will allow every archaeological artifact originally looted, as well as the foreign government entity attempting to profit from its exhibition in the United States, to be completely protected from any damage or suit.

Finally, the narrow focus of the bill to a Nazi-only exception mischaracterizes the Holocaust: by adopting this bill, Congress will crystallize the Holocaust as an event specifically Jewish or specifically European, enabling it and the public to ignore the larger human issue of Holocaust-like events which have taken place since World War II and the associated large-scale cultural plunder associated with those events.  If Congress passes S. 2212, it recognizes that the Holocaust is nothing but a simple historical aberration, enabling all of us no longer to consider the consequences, costs or risks of persecution and its associated cultural plunder in other situations.  In essence, Congress’ message in passing S. 2212 is as follows: Nazi looting is not OK, but cultural looting and plundering in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cyprus, are all OK, protected and shielded by the will of the U.S. Government.

Therefore, I urge you and your committee to withdraw S. 2212 from any further consideration, review, amendments or vote.

On behalf of HARP, I thank you for your leadership on this important issue and for your support.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at the address above. 

Sincerely yours,
                                                        
Ori Soltes
Theology and Fine Arts
Georgetown University
37th and O Streets, N.W.
Washington D.C. 20057

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