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Retracing History

A unique website in Germany is trying to help find the rightful owners of looted art stolen by the Nazis during World War Two.


"Lot and and his Daughters" by Jacopo Robusti, or Tintoretto - one of the paintings in the Lost Art database.

The Nazi regime not only craved recognition politically and militarily, but also culturally. Adolf Hitler ordered the so-called "collection" of thousands of valuable art works to furnish world-class museums.

During the Second World War, the regime bought all types of objects in the German and international markets, as well as in the occupied territories. It also took on artwork confiscated from politically and racially persecuted people.

A significant part of this art can still be found in Germany's museums today. But these institutions have begun doing intense research to discover their origins.

Over 55 years after the end of World War Two, some of Germany's musuems have started sorting their holdings through so-called "provenance" research. It's an attempt to trace the origins of art works to establish whether they have a dubious past or not.

Using the Internet to provide transparency

Once a museum determines that a piece of artwork was looted, it's still difficult to find the rightful owners or heirs. This is where the Internet comes into play.

Many Jewish families fled Germany and have settled all over the world. The Lost Art Internet database is a way to reach as many people as possible, no matter where they live now.

The website "www.lostart.de" documents cultural assets that were relocated during the war or seized due to persecution. It's a joint project by the German states and the federal government and is offered in German, English and Russian.

"For us, the most important point on lostart.de is that it's an instrument to provide transparency, not only nationally, but also internationally, for which the Internet is the best possible medium," says Michael Franz, director of the Coordination Office for Cultural Losses in Magdeburg.

"This is the first and perhaps the most important step for further developments concerning the discussion of returning works or the evaluation of legal aspects," he told DW-WORLD.

Users can also look for artwork that once belonged to their family. "On the one hand, it's possible for you to register this loss as a cultural loss within our database," Franz explains. "This makes it researchable for everyone worldwide."

But since both national and international museums place the results of their provenance research in the Lost Art database, users can also simply scroll through the objects with provenance gaps located in a public institution.

Success: a matter of definition

Franz finds it hard to say just how successful the site has been since it was set up in 2000.

"It's a very difficult question, because it's very difficult to define the term 'success'. From our point of view, a success is already the fact that lostart.de is an established system, which means that it can be used by institutions."

But in terms of public understanding, he says success could also mean the return of listed objects. And the site has had at least one success story.

"We have returned a painting from the so-called Linzer Liste, which combines about 2,200 cultural objects located in German museums," says Franz. "In summer 2001, we were very fortunately able to return a painting by Adrian van der Velde to the original owner."

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