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Wanted: art detectives

Interview: Sarah Hofmann / lbhFebruary 13, 2014

Germany's search for treasures stolen by the Nazis needs to be significantly reinforced, Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen tells DW. The Cultural Foundation of the States is calling for a systematic review of collections.

An open book with a hand in the corner, implying provenance research about the historical piece of art Photo: DW/Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
Image: DW/E. Yorck von Wartenburg

Art plundered by the Nazis continues to surface in public collections and German museums decades after World War Two. Two publicly funded institutions in Germany are tasked with identifying, tracking down and returning stolen treasures: the workshop for Provenance Research in Berlin and the "lost art," databank in Magdeburg. Both are resources for museums, libraries and archives when it comes to identifying stolen objects or "aryanized" works. Provenance research efforts in Germany, however, need to be significantly enhanced according to the Secretary General of Germany's Culture Foundation of the States, Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen. On the heels of this week's latest plundered art discovery in Austria, Pfeiffer-Poensgen talked to DW about developments in identifying stolen art.

DW: The latest development in the Gurlitt case - the discovery of about 60 pieces in Salzburg, in which it's not yet clear if the pieces are stolen or not – shows just how difficult it is to identify the origins of art in the hands of private owners. What are the options for identifying looted art now under private ownership?

Pfeiffer-Poensgen: There are a number of large private collections in Germany whose owners are now alarmed. I know from several who have allowed their collections to be reviewed. But there's no way for the public sector to exert pressure on them. Of course we make it clear that we would like to investigate, but with the financial support we're given, we can only research public collections. No German museum can say anymore that it can't afford provenenance research. There's financial support from (the Cultural Foundation of the States) and from the German government, which allows these museums to recruit skilled workers for the research.

An artwork is in focus at the front, left of the photo as researchers Britta Olényi (left) and Jasmin Hartmann investigate the piece Photo: DW/Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
Art researchers Britta Olényi (left) und Jasmin Hartmann examine an artwork with questionable historyImage: DW/E. Yorck von Wartenburg

Cultural politicians in each state have recently revealed the current state of provenance research. What is your take on the results and what mistakes are evident?

In Germany provenance research only effectively began in the 1990s. Only then did museums, archives and libraries start to ask, "Where do these works actually come from? Did they arrive here legally?" Since 2008 collections have been systematically examined to see if they're potentially stolen - artworks which were, for example, taken from Jewish collectors - and then in accordance to the Washington Declaration, they are returned in a fair and equitable solution, or the heirs are compensated accordingly. We started this process much too late. But now we must make up for lost time.

Nevertheless, the Gurlitt case has shown that the current methods aren't enough.

The Gurlitt case has been unfortunate in many different ways, but something positive did result in the fact that it garnered broad publicity, and the administration and politicians have understood that there's still a lot of work to be done in this field, and we need more funding to operate effectively and bring awareness throughout all of Germany. Nevertheless, it isn't accurate to say nothing is happening in the field. In the individual states there are many decentralized research projects in progress. As a result of this federal structure, and the fact that there is no central mandatory registry for looted art, it's difficult for someone who is not directly involved in the matter to gain an overview.

That is precisely what lawyers and heirs of Jewish art collectors have criticized – that the federal system makes it's difficult to contact countless individual institutions to find out where their inherited artworks are. Will this be changing in the future?

I assume so. In the spring this year there will be a series of talks between the 16 states and the federal government in Germany. The new Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters, signalled very clearly that she wants to strengthen the system. I think, even in the case of Gurlitt, that there's a great opportunity to make positive changes.

Black and white photo from 1945, showing that American soldiers found valuable paintings amongst a huge cache of art treasures hidden by the Nazis in Neuschwanstein Castle Photo: Getty images
In 1945, American soldiers found valuable paintings amongst a huge cache of art treasures hidden by the Nazis in Neuschwanstein CastleImage: Getty Images

Will there be a central organization for this work in the near future?

No. We don't want a centralized administrative body because we operate under a federal system, after all. But the individual institutional discoveries that are made could be better collected and centrally merged. And this must be mentioned - a big shortcoming on our part is that everything is invested in research but there are hardly any public relations positions. The successful cases need to be publicized and talked about more. The results and how they are achieved need to be more transparent. This will surely be part of the considerations that are being made.

Recently Ronald S. Lauder, President of the Jewish World Congress, complained that of 6,000 German musuems only 350 had allowed their collections to be researched for looted art. Will things be changing in this arena?

Yes, I'm absolutely sure. However, Mr. Lauder's argumentation is a bit rough around the edges because we have 6,000 museums in Germany, but a large number of them deal with contemporary art and therefore aren't part of our research. The research mostly centers on art that was created before 1945 and became part of a collection after 1933. Nevertheless, it's clear that a lot of people still have their homework to do. The Gurlitt case made it clear that there's no alternative. The things need to be explained.