Prague, 10 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two events yesterday underscored how much the search for so-called Nazi Gold has recently shifted away from the precious metal itself to a large array of assets stolen by the Nazis either from countries they controlled or from individuals in them.
The first event, a major one, took place in Paris. At the French Foreign Ministry on the Quai d'Orsay, representatives of three of the four major Allies that defeated the Nazis formally disbanded a commission set up 52 years ago to restore gold stolen from governments by the Nazis. And with the end of its work, the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold, made up of the U.S., Britain and France, opened all 110 boxes of its archives to the public.
The second event, a minor one compared to the commission's disbanding, occurred in Vienna. Speaking for the Austrian Government, Culture Minister Elisabeth Gehrer announced that museums containing hundreds of arts works seized by the Nazis and not given back after the war's end would now be restored to their rightful owners, most of whom are Jews.
The change in Austria's no-export-of-art policy, which has prevailed for half-a-century, clearly amounts to a capitulation by Vienna to the threat posed by a recent suit filed in a New York court by heirs of Holocaust victims. The plaintiffs claimed that two Austrian-owned paintings (by Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele) shown in New York last year belonged to them. Although the claim was denied by a New York judge, the case is still pending and the controversy surrounding it prompted Austria to take a more critical look at its museums' postwar acquisitions.
The Tripartite Gold Commission ended its work after returning 336 tons of plundered gold--at current prices, worth about $4 billion -- found in Nazi caches and in neutral countries. An additional 177 tons reported missing from Nazi-occupied countries after the war were never found. The last disbursement the commission made was four bars of gold to Albania two months ago (July 13), while another three bars due to the ex-Yugoslavia is being held by the Bank of England until its six successor states can decide how to divide it up.
During a ceremony at the Quai d'Orsay, senior French, British and U.S. diplomats all stressed that the commission's mandate was to return stolen gold to governments and not to individuals. France's Claude Martin said that "we are conscious [that] there are victims who have not received their due." He was referring to individuals, a probable majority of them Jews, whose personal possessions ranging from jewelry to gold teeth were looted by the Nazis --and, the commission learned, were smelted into bars to disguise their source.
Britain's Anthony Layden also made pointed reference to the Nazi massacre of millions of Jews. "We would like," said, "for the messages and lessons of the Holocaust to be enshrined." And U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat spoke of the difficulty the commission had in determining how much of what is called victim gold had been contained in the bars it had returned to plundered national central banks. Eizenstat said that recent research had authoritatively established that monetary gold looted from countries occupied by the Nazis had become, in his word, "intermingled" with personal gold plundered from individual homes across the European continent and in Nazi extermination camps.
An international conference on Nazi gold held last December in London set up a fund to help Holocaust victims and urged all countries that still had outstanding claims for looted gold to contribute it to the fund. Most countries with claims on the last 5.5 tons of gold disbursed by the commission earlier this year have pledged the money due to them to the fund. The $57 million promised so far exceeds the $55 million the gold was worth, and more pledges are expected soon.
The biggest donors are the U.S. with $25 million , the Netherlands with $10 million and Austria with almost eight million. Poland ($570,000), Slovakia ($400,000) and the Czech Republic ($160,000) have pledged the value of their respective gold claims.
Speaking to the press after yesterday's ceremony, U.S. representative Eizenstat urged Russia and the Vatican to reveal what they knew about wartime Nazi asset looting. He said that the commission had not asked Moscow for information about stolen gold because the Soviet Union had refused to join when it began work in 1946. But he urged Russia to open its archives now before the convening of a December Washington Conference on Holocaust Assets to help trace stolen artworks, insurance policies and other assets.
Eizenstat also said he had visited the Vatican twice this year to ask for any information its archives had about stolen gold. The commission had been particularly interested in bullion the wartime fascist regime in Croatia was believed to have smuggled to Rome, allegedly to help war criminals escape to South American after the war. The Vatican, Eizenstat said, was "not at this point prepared to do so." But he stressed that he was n-o-t accusing the Vatican of having handled the stolen gold or even of knowing what happened to it.
The Austrian policy change will involve the likely return to their owners' families of up 500 paintings, tapestries, coin collections and other art objects. Most of the thousands of art works confiscated by Hitler's regime after Austria was annexed by the Third Reich in 1938 were restituted in the postwar years. But up to 500 paintings, tapestries, coin collections and other art objects were either quietly incorporated into Austrian museums or extorted from their --mostly Jewish-- exiled owners on grounds they could not be shipped out the country.
One Austrian museum director, Gerbert Frodl of the Gallery Belvedere, told the Reuters news agency that the gallery's possessions included 17 art works extorted from the Rothschild family. He said that "owners were not permitted to export their possessions [but could} remove [most of] their collections if particular art works were 'donated' to museums. That," he noted, "was not exactly morally outstanding."