A new Web page run by Germany's Finance Ministry attempts to find the proper owners of looted Nazi art by documenting photos and descriptions of paintings and other pieces of art confiscated during the Third Reich.
An online catalog of some 100 art objects looted by the Nazis was posted online by the Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues (BADV) on Wednesday. The list includes a dozen early Renaissance portraits and biblical scenes by Lucas Cranach the Elder, best known for his oil renditions of Martin Luther, as well as an oil-on-canvas Rubens portrait from the 1600s of the Archbishop Antonio Trieste of Ghent.
The agency, which is a division of the Finance Ministry and has branches throughout Germany, was established last year to handle claims not only for looted art, antique furniture and other cultural artifacts, but also the restitution of real estate and property seized by the Nazis.
Biblical themes are common in works by Lucas Cranach the Elder
According to the BADV's Harald König, the body of case-law dealing with restitution issues and compensation for assets confiscated by the Nazis is still growing more than 60 years after the end of the war.
Although most legal claims were settled in the post-war years in the former West Germany, the origins of much of the art unearthed in the eastern states after the reunification in 1990, has only recently begun being documented and returned to the original owners.
Mostly oil paintings on list of looted art
So far the provenance of 36 objects out of nearly 600 that have been thoroughly documented have been or are in the process of being returned to Holocaust survivors or their descendents, said König.
Returning the art to its proper owners is nearly always a long legal process that can take years, or even decades, for owners to prove the art belongs to them.
The looted listed on the BADV's Web page consists mainly of oil paintings, but also Italian, English and German antiques replete with detailed descriptions, historical references and a black and white photo. Most of the art has been loaned out to museums throughout Germany, including several works that had been originally intended for Hitler's museum in Linz, Austria.
The Nazis looted about 650,000 artworks in all according to estimates by the Jewish Claims Conference, of which only a fraction have been returned in spite of highly publicized restitution efforts since the mid-1990s. One of the main reasons for the meager returns was the difficulty involved in adequately documenting the provenance of art assets.
List needs to be in English for target audience
Descendents of Holocaust survivors no longer speak German
"It's marvelous that such information is now being posted by the BADV," said Anne Webber, who is co-chair of the non-profit London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, though she added that the comprehensive list compiled by the agency would benefit from being translated into English.
Only last month, the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, which published its comprehensive database of stolen Nazi art in German last December, provided an English page as well.
"Such sites need to be accessible to their target audiences worldwide," Webber said. "The rightful owners are not likely to live in German speaking countries, nor speak German anymore."
Although parts of BADV's Web page are available in English, the detailed list of paintings and artworks are not. "We’ll translate the page if the demand is there," said König.