Seventy years after the Nazis stole his family's artworks, Lionel Salem is still waiting for their return. In the painfully slow restitution process, the emotional impact on the affected families often gets overlooked.
From his Paris apartment, Lionel Salem paid close attention to the recent news about the discovery of the massive Gurlitt collection of paintings in Munich, most of which are presumed to have been looted by the Nazis and kept secret for decades. The 76-year-old retired university professor has only been able to retrieve 18 or 20 out of the 77 paintings that belonged to his grandfather and were auctioned off in France under Nazi law during World War II.
"The German authorities should be far more open than they have been," said Salem about the Munich find in an interview with DW. "I think it's a big mistake that they were hiding this for several years. When people have been trying to recover paintings which were stolen over 70 years ago, you don't feel happy about waiting even a month more.
"At some point all the people who are involved will be dead," he added.
The Munich discovery reminded Salem of one success he'd had in reclaiming his family's art collection. In June 1999, 59 years after his family had managed to escape from Bordeaux just days before the Nazis occupied it, the appeals court in Paris ordered the Louvre Museum to return five Italian paintings in its possession to the Salem family.
"It was the greatest day of my life - except for my two marriages," said Salem in a monotone voice. "I may not sound very emotional when I say it. That is because, at the same time, I feel sorry that my mother was not there to enjoy it. If anything, they belonged to her and my grandfather."
Need for restitution long overlooked
It wasn't until the 1990s, when many Holocaust survivors or their relatives began reclaiming paintings, that 44 countries signed the so-called Washington Agreement, pledging to work together to resolve restitution cases involving Nazi-looted art.
"No one was trying [to reclaim paintings] before the 1990s because the mood of the authorities in particular, but also of the public in general, was that the Jewish people were very lucky to have survived and they should feel very content about that and not think about getting possessions back," commented Salem. "After the war, people used to say to my mother, 'You are so lucky to be alive - forget about the paintings.'"
According to Salem, it is up to governments and politicians to realize justice. It was then French President Jacques Chirac's 1995 speech at the Vel' d'Hiv Stadium - where many Jews were held before being sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust - that changed public opinion in France, recalled Salem. Chirac "was the first to say that it was France's responsibility."
Chirac's speech was the catalyst that led Salem in 1997 to begin the legal process of restoring his family's works. Five were returned from the Louvre in 1999; two, he says, are in a museum in Milan; another 12 or 14 were recovered in other restitution cases; and the whereabouts of the others remain unknown.
Immeasurable sentimental value
For families like Salem's, the sentimental significance of recovering a long-lost work of art that had been stolen under the most horrific of political circumstances far outweighs the monetary value.
"It's been reported that the [Munich] hoard is worth a fortune, but its worth to the families is not so much in financial terms as what it symbolizes in historical and emotional terms," said Anne Webber, co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a non-profit organization that has helped families around the world retrieve more that 3,000 artworks stolen by the Nazis.
Webber added that claimants are often treated without enough respect. "Hitler's project was to erase the Jews from history. So to treat claimants as if the history and circumstances of loss were of no consequence can be like a re-run of that history," she commented. "Justice requires that these cases be dealt with between two equal parties, but the holders of the paintings usually retain the balance of power."
Like Salem, Webber is also critical of the way German authorities handled the case of the long-hidden Gurlitt collection in Munich, which was made public earlier this month, saying the government has failed to deal with the restitution of Nazi-looted art in a "comprehensive and just way."
Achilles' heel and Herculean patience
Germany "has dealt well with so much of its Nazi legacy, but returning looted art is very much its Achilles' heel," concluded Webber.
Both Salem and Webber find fault in how time-consuming the process of restitution is. "I have always been an impatient man and this process taught me patient because it has been going on since 1997 - more than 15 years!" exclaimed Salem.
The 18 or 20 works Salem and his co-heirs have already seen returned have either been loaned to museums in the United States or sold. Many other heirs of returned works of art also choose to sell or lend them out. Yariv Egozi, the owner of auction house Egozi Gallery Tel-Aviv, says he deals with such cases every year.
"In most cases, due to the fact that multiple heirs inherit it and that they manage to retrieve it after a long and expansive trial, it's much easier for the family to decide to sell the art," explained Egozi. "Others who prefer not to sell decide to lend to museums, due to the high costs of insurance and maintenance."
Egozi recalled one case in particular where a family was about to sign a sales contract for a newly restituted work: "One family member burst into tears, which changed everything and resulted in the family choosing to keep it."
Ten to 15 percent of the families who come to him to sell their returned artworks end up changing their minds, he estimated.
Making things right
Regardless of what the affected families choose to do with the art once they reclaim it, both Webber and Salem emphasize the importance of upholding justice.
"Getting the paintings back is a matter of justice and not so much of memory for me," said Salem, adding that the memory of his grandparents also played a central role for him. "When we got [the paintings back in 1999], it was a satisfaction of justice."
In the Gurlitt case in Munich, it's likely to be a matter of years before justice is finally served.