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Culture

Commission To Track, Return Art Stolen by the Nazis

A government commission has been charged with the controversial task of tracking down and returning art stolen by the Nazis to its rightful owners. But critics are casting doubt on the commission's chances for success.

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A new German commission could help solve disputes over the provenance of paintings like this work by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele.

Rather than give herself over to the Nazis, the wife of wealthy Jewish patron Gustav Kirstein killed herself the day before the Gestapo came to knock down her door in 1939.

The Nazis looted the Kirstein home, taking more than 80 pieces of art that only turned up 60 years later in a Leipzig art museum.

Embarrassed that it housed works stolen by the Nazis in its collection, the museum's directors returned the works to Kirstein descendants in the United States. in 2000. "The city of Leipzig is giving back what doesn't belong to it," said the city's mayor at the time.

But the incident was anything but isolated and a new commission that meets for the first time in Monday has been created to avoid such embarrassments in the future. The commission, made up of eight members including former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, is charged with tracking down remaining pieces of art stolen by the Nazi regime from Jewish families in the 1930s and 1940s.

Chances for resolution increased

Though not given any legal authority, the hope is that the commission will nevertheless be able to solve art custody disputes between museums and the descendants of the works' original owners.

Christina Weiss

Christina Weiss, 48

"With the possibility, in difficult cases, to call upon the commission … the chances of finding a fair and correct solution are increased," said Christina Weiss (photo), the state secretary for media and culture in Gerhard Schröder's chancellery.

Others are less certain about the prospects for the commission's work. The return of stolen Nazi art has been a controversial topic for museums, which in some cases fear losing large parts of their collection. Legal channels have failed to resolve numerous art ownership disputes in the past and many feel that a commission without any legal authority won't have much of an impact.

Skeptics say commission lacks teeth

"I'm skeptical of what sort of an effect such a commission can have," said Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Foundation for Prussian Cultural Heritage, in an interview with the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. "The topic will be elevated to such a high level that the process will only take longer … The most the commission can do is to add to overall awareness of the problem."

Lehmann's foundation, which operates a handful of Berlin's largest museums, made headlines in 1999 when it decided to return works including a Van Gogh drawing and a self-portrait of the painter Hans von Marées to the descendants of a Jewish collector.

But such moves have proven the exception rather than the rule.

There are more than 46,000 pieces of art currently hanging in museums worldwide whose provenance is in dispute according to a database set up by the German federal and state governments. The works were all stolen or were sold in forced auctions after 1933, the year in which the free art trade ceased to exist in Germany.

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