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Art detectives

Bianca Schröder / kbm
April 17, 2013

They've been hot on the trail of works by Dix, Kollwitz and Marc. For years, experts and students have been solving the mysteries behind artworks confiscated by the Nazis and have created a one-of-a-kind database.

"Portrait Tilla Durieux" by Oskar Kokoschka
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

He was Hitler's number one enemy in the art world: Oskar Kokoschka was considered by the Nazis to be the "most degenerate" of the so-called degenerate artists, many of whom were Jewish and did not line up with the Nazis' racist ideology.

Kokoschka's works were confiscated and many have not been found to this day. So when one of his drawings turned up at Christie's auction house, art experts in Berlin's "Degenerate Art" Research Division were ecstatic.

Founded in 2003 at the Freie Universität, the research institute gathers information on the whereabouts of some 20,000 artworks confiscated by the Nazis and compiles it in a special database - the only one of its kind in the world.

Meike Hoffmann
Meike Hoffmann manages the unique art history databaseImage: DW/B. Schröder

The institute is an important point of contact for researchers around the world investigating the provenance of artworks, which is why project manager Meike Hoffmann was contacted by Christie's as soon as Kokoschka's "Daughter of the Juggler" had been identified. She was able to tell the auction house when and where the drawing had been confiscated.

The work, depicting a slender girl wearing only a skirt, was sold at auction for over 300,000 euros (over $390,000). The new owner has since been informed of the drawing's history and provided the "Degenerate Art" Research Division with a replica of the work and information about the materials and techniques used to create it.

Solving mysteries

As a basis for their research, the institute refers to the inventory list the Nazis drew up in 1937 and 1938 of the artworks they confiscated. The list includes 16,585 works.

"There are numerous gaps and mistakes [in the list]," Meike Hoffmann explained. "We amend and correct the entries."

In addition, the research institute publishes texts on the topic and offers seminars for students at the Freie Universität.

Students are very interested in the political aspects of art history, said Hoffmann, and some of them even have a direct connection to "degenerate art." Student Johanna Klapproth, for example, did an internship at Sotheby's auction house several years ago and saw first-hand how art restoration experts regularly contacted the Berlin research institute for historical information.

Johanna Klapproth
Johanna Klapproth was inspired by an internship at Sotheby'sImage: DW/B. Schröder

"I found that so interesting that afterwards I applied for the master's program at the Freie Universität," said Klapproth. She is currently writing her thesis about the compensation some museums have received for returning works that had been seized by the Nazis.

Teamwork with students

More than 30 master's theses and dissertations have been written in cooperation with the "Degenerate Art" Research Division, with several more currently in progress.

The center is also point of interest for students from outside Germany as well, like British PhD candidate Lucy Watling. She is writing her dissertation on the "Twentieth Century German Art" exhibition, which took place in London in 1938 in protest of the Nazis' "Degenerate Art" exhibition.

"I realized that it's important to first understand the background of the works that were shown in London, and that's information I was best able to find in Germany," Watling said. A one-year research grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) made it possible for her to come to Germany. Watling has since returned to England and is completing her doctoral degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Students' academic research is essential to the work done at the Berlin institute, since the flood of documents that pass through is too much for four staff members and two assistants to manage alone. Fresh information is coming from Eastern Europe in particular, where the younger generation is taking on positions at art museums and starting to release historical documentation.

Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels at the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1938
Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich in 1938Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H02648 / CC-BY-SA

The "Degenerate Art" Research Division, initiated and largely financed by the Ferdinand Möller Foundation, will celebrates its 10-year anniversary this fall. By then it will have compiled information on some 10,000 works of art - a significant step in working through what has been a largely neglected aspect of German history.

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