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Looted Art

Sabina CasagrandeNovember 19, 2006

The German government has invited museum directors and legal experts to Berlin on Monday to discuss claims for art bought or seized by the Nazis. Museums hope to play a more active role in the restitution process.

Franz Marc's "Little Blue Horses"
Stuttgart's Staatsgalerie Museum was asked to hand over Franz Marc's "Little Blue Horses"Image: picture-alliance

Germany's Culture Minister Bernd Neumann has invited leading museum representatives and legal experts to the Berlin Chancellery on Monday. A government spokesman said Neumann wanted to get an idea of the situation facing German museums for artwork unfairly bought or confiscated by the Nazis before and during World War Two.

Museum directors have said they are going into the meeting with no demands, but rather suggestions on the major problems at hand concerning restitution. A top item on their list is so-called "provenance" research, which traces the origins of a piece of art.

"We believe more funds need to be invested into this kind of research," said Mechtild Kronenberg, director of the German Museum Association -- a sentiment shared by the Jewish Claims Conference. It said that provenance research was a key factor to help come to terms with the consequences of the Nazi's art theft.

"But German institutions in particular should not lag behind internationally established standards," the Conference said in a position paper, such as those of US and British museums.

Ernst Kirchner's "Berlin Strassenszene"
Ernst Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene" from 1913Image: AP

However, there is only one researcher working full-time on provenance, Ute Haug at the Hamburg Kunsthalle. Two other museums, the Dresden State Art Collections and the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, have art historians investigating their collections, but in part-time or temporary positions. It is a small contribution to this kind of research considering Germany is home to several thousand museums.

Promises aren't footing the bill

Haug said she hoped the Berlin meeting would make the situation more transparent for Neumann, as the problem itself is nothing new. Already in 1998, the "Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets" took place, which addressed issues surrounding the restitution of assets confiscated between 1933 and 1945.

"For eight years, these difficulties have been known, for eight years there has been no money for provenance research, and for eight years there have been restitutions which could have gone better," Haug said.

For decades, German museums kept the history of their holdings under lock and key -- or simply ignored any irregularities. Statutes introduced after World War Two stipulated that restitution claims had to be made by December 31, 1948. Art collectors or their heirs could make no legal claims thereafter -- and that was the end of the discussion for German museums. The Washington conference changed this.

One of the 11 principles in the conference declaration, which Germany also signed, was: "Resources and personnel should be made available to facilitate the identification of all art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted."

Hamburger Kunsthalle
The Hamburger Kunsthalle is returning a work owned by a NaziImage: Hamburger Kunsthalle

In 1999, the German government, states and municipal organizations issued a joint statement promising to help people find looted artwork despite a legal deadline that had expired more than half a century ago.

But promises don't foot the bill. In Germany, there has been practically no public money for provenance research.

Disputed restitution case reignites debate

Culture Minister Neumann issued his invitation for Monday following strong criticism of a recent restitution case in Berlin. The Berlin Senate returned the expressionist painting "Berlin Street Scene" by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner from 1913 to the granddaughter of Jewish art collector Alfred Hess. The work, in turn, was sold to cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder at an auction in New York last week for $38 million.

"Cases such as this are problematic, because the burden of proof lies with the owner, in this case the museum," Kronenberg said. "But many documents don't exist anymore."

Although there was evidence that the painting was not a case of looted art, including written correspondence indicating it had been sold willingly, Berlin's Brücke museum had no official receipt for the work.

Critics said Germany's restitution law needed an overhaul, as the country's museums were losing significant works as a result. Hans-Joachim Otto from the opposition Free Democrat Party (FDP) said the concept of restitution should not be discredited by the art market.

However, restitution rules for artwork in public collections were "in some details" too rigid and needed adjustment, said Otto, a member of the FDP and head of the parliamentary committee for culture. He also expressed support for more research funding.

"In the same way restitution practices should be put to the test, efforts for provenance research should be significantly intensified and supported by the federal and state governments," Otto said.

Many experts have observed that art historians specializing in provenance research are not being hired by museums, but rather by law firms specializing in restitution claims. This led to what the Museums Association president Michael Eissenhauer called "big business" with restitution pieces.

Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer
Lauder bought Gustav Klimt's "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" for $135 million in June 2006Image: AP

"It's worth it to go out and look for prey, to see which works can bring new blood to the art market," Eissenhauer told news agency ddp.

But German museums are by no means backing down from their responsibilities, its association said.

"If there is a justified restitution claim, there is no question whatsoever that a work will be returned," Kronenberg said.

The Hamburg Kunsthalle, for example, is returning a 17th-century piece, which Haug traced back to the private collection of the Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. It had been acquired by Nazi leader Hermann Göring.

Germany should rethink its cultural priorities

In the 1930s, the Nazi regime began confiscating the property of Jewish art dealers. It forced many private collectors to simply hand over their artworks. German museums were ordered to turn over cultural objects on loan from private Jewish collections.

The Nazis looted this art partly for Adolf Hitler's planned "Führermuseum" in Linz, a body intended to achieve world-class recognition. Hundreds of works also flowed into Göring's private collection.

During the Second World War, many German and Dutch art dealers made a fortune off buying art below value from distraught Jewish families trying to get money to leave the country. These paintings were then sold or given back to German museums, where they may even have hung just years before.

Experts estimate there are between 100 and 150 pieces of art in question for restitution. But without more research, Germany's public collections cannot be thoroughly analyzed. There have been suggestions that a central office for provenance research be established. Haug said this would be a good option.

"It would have synergy effects, and help develop a network among art historians working in this area," she said.