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Olaf Ossmann Lecture on Holocaust-Era Art Confiscation and Restitution

Beth Weizmann Community Centre was the venue for world-renowned specialist in international law and restitution of art works, Olaf Ossmann.

On the 13th of October, 150 community members attended the free public lecture hosted at Beth Weizmann Community Centre by the Zionist Council of Victoria, United Israel Appeal and the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

Mr Ossmann’s talk, “Deprivation of Art work by the Nazi Regime in Europe – Consequence for Art Collectors Today,” was both a timely and engaging. Mr Ossmann is in Australia as a guest of the National Gallery of Victoria, and we kindly acknowledge their generosity for making him available to our community.

The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Mr Ossmann began by discussing how the physical aspects of Succoth designed to connect us viscerally to the holiday may be compared to the way art serves as a filing cabinet of the brain, connecting us to our memory and, by extension, to our identity. “Taking away one’s art is to take away their memory and their identity.”

He went on to explain the cultural policy of the Nazi’s in the 1930s and how the number of works confiscated was without precedent – with over 16000 pieces removed from Jewish families and individuals.To add insult to injury, the Nazis also burned a huge number of works throughout Europe.

Mr Ossman spoke about the common misconception of what restitution may mean. In many cases it has nothing to do with returning the art works to the heirs or even about financial compensation. Sometimes it is simply acknowledging the original owners’ names in the list of provenance.

He explained the difficulties of developing a case for a claim as well as resolving it. “Making a claim involves a long list of requirements that need to be obtained through significant and creative detective work. Some of these include ‘proof of circumstances of loss’ and ‘proof that persecution caused the loss’.”

Mr Ossmann has been heavily involved for the past two decades in the case of Richard Semmel’s stolen assets which included a large factory, villa and extensive art collection. Mr Semmel was a wealthy industrialist in Berlin and employed over 1000 people. His enormous villa was purpose built for his art collection.

To avoid arrest, he fled to Amsterdam and was forced to sell his art below market value although he was never paid. His factory was also confiscated. He ended up in New York and died penniless in 1951, unable to pay for his own funeral.

The resolution of the assets claim for his factory took over ten years. Only 24 pieces of Mr Semmel’s extensive art collection have had some sort of resolution, with only four pieces being returned to the family.

What stunned the audience was the fact that the Washington Conference rules for restitution only applies to works of art owed by public institutions and not private owners.

There is a very real possibility that many works of art will never be found nor their provenance recognised.