Assisting Claimants Worldwide from New York: The Holocaust Claims Processing Office
In addition to encouraging ethical art collection stewardship, the Center for Art Collection Ethics shares information on resources available to potential claimants. One such resource is the New York State Department of Financial Services’ Holocaust Claims Processing Office, which provides free assistance to victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs regardless of their current place of residence or citizenship. Its services are available to individuals worldwide.
The Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) was established in 1997 by executive order of then-governor of New York George Pataki as part of the New York State Banking Department. While the purpose of the HCPO was originally to assist Holocaust victims and their families with reclaiming assets that had been deposited in Swiss banks, it quickly became clear that claimants were also interested in recovering other property. According to an article published in the Network of European Restitution Committees on Nazi-Looted Art’s May 2020 newsletter, within one year of commencing operations the HCPO expanded its mission, and, since 1998, the office has assisted individuals with “the recovery of assets held in non-Swiss banks, unpaid insurance policies, other material losses, and works of art that were lost, looted, or sold under duress between 1933 and 1945.”
To substantiate the restitution claims submitted to the HCPO, the office undertakes multiple forms of research, including, but not limited to, genealogical, archival and object focused research. In the previously mentioned newsletter article, HCPO director Anna Rubin explains that genealogical research is critical to successful claims because “many Holocaust survivors and their heirs possess little or no documentation regarding their families.” Through genealogical research, the HCPO identifies the rightful heirs to assets lost as a result of Nazi persecution. After determining who the heirs are, the office undertakes archival and object specific research, including provenance research, to trace the ownership of loss of the claimed assets and located the missing items so that claims can be made for their restitution.
From its start in 1997 until today, the HCPO has helped to recover over $181 million in assets and over 190 works of art. Claims have been submitted to auction houses, private collectors and museums, as well as other institutions in both the United States and Europe. All of this work is completed at no cost to claimants, and the HCPO does not take a percentage of any assets recovered. The HCPO pursues restitution through amicable and transparent negotiation (alternative dispute resolution, ADR).
The HCPO intends to host a conference, Terms of Art: Understanding the Mechanics of Dispossession During the Nazi Period, for practitioners of Nazi-era restitution in the near future. The goal of this conference is to bring together experts from related fields, such as claimant representatives, attorneys, members of the art trade, cultural institutions, provenance researchers, historians and art historians, to discuss the legal terms used when seeking restitution.
The HCPO welcomes any opportunity to work with individuals on claims or with institutions on works in their collections. For more information on the Holocaust Claims Processing Office, or to file a claim, please visit their website.