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Restitution of Nazi-looted art a 'permanent task'

Annabelle Steffes-Halmer | Gaby Reucher eg
January 22, 2020

Works of art that were stolen or confiscated by the Nazis from museums and Jewish collectors are starting to be returned to the heirs of the former owners. However the process is destined to drag on for years to come.

painting frames
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Ossinger

It's not easy to recover works of art that were expropriated by the Nazis. It's just as difficult to find the actual owners or their heirs.

Several looted artworks have, however, been successfully restituted in recent times.

The Leverkusen-based chemical company Bayer AG has returned on January 21 a painting by Oskar Moll to the Leipzig Museum der bildenden Künste (Museum of Fine Arts). Still Life with Poppies and Black Jug from 1916 had been in the possession of the company since 1951.

A day later, the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters, is personally presenting three Nazi-looted artworks to the rightful heirs from France.

Constantin Guys' 'Lady on rising horse'
Constantin Guys' 'Lady on rising horse' Image: Imago Images/Artokoloro

Two of those paintings returned to the heirs of Jewish art collector Armand Dorville, the watercolor Lady in Evening Dress and the oil painting Portrait of a Lady were by Jean-Louis Forain, come from the inventory of Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt.

The third work returned to Dorville's heirs, Lady on Rising Horse by Constantin Guys, had landed in a private collection.

The Gurlitt art trove

It is not the first time that a painting from the Gurlitt collection has been returned to its rightful owners.

Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi art dealer, had bequeathed his extensive collection to his son Cornelius. In February 2012, numerous artworks were confiscated from his Munich apartment — the collection of seized works also became known as the "Gurlitt Trove," or "Munich Art Hoard."

For decades, Cornelius Gurlitt had kept some 1,500 priceless paintings hidden there and in another house in Salzburg, including masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse or Chagall.

Read more:A new way to track cultural assets looted by Nazis  

Many of the works had belonged to Jewish collectors, and from the 1930s onwards, Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired them at ridiculous prices. He was never held accountable for his crimes after the war. He died in 1956, and left his art trove to his son, who then died in 2014.

Ever since the spectacular discovery of the hoarded paintings, the estate has been systematically examined to trace the provenience of looted works. A task force of international art experts was set up to determine the origins and the ownership of the works of art.

"It's a mixed lot," art historian Christoph Zuschlag told DW. "The Gurlitts had artists in their own family, and some of the works were from them — there's nothing suspicious about those."

Very few cases of looted art have been confirmed and closed to date: "So far we have seven. With the two works that are now being returned, that's nine," said the Bonn University art professor.

Art historian Christoph Zuschlag
Art historian Christoph ZuschlagImage: Jean-Luc Ikelle-Matiba

Seized by the Nazis: 'Degenerate art'

Zuschlag's academic focus is provenience research — not only of Nazi-looted art, but of cultural assets in general, regardless of the era. This type of research, which aims to determine the origins of a piece and its history of ownership, "has obtained increased public attention through the issue of Nazi-looted art, and that plays a central role in the Gurlitt case," said Zuschlag.

Along with works of art stolen from Jewish families, there were also in the Gurlitt trove paintings that had been defamed by the Nazis as "degenerate art."

Most of these were modern artworks that had been systematically seized from museums and private collections under Hitler's dictatorship and then stored in depots or sold directly.

"The Gurlitts were involved in the trade of 'degenerate art' as well as in acquiring looted art, for example for the collections of high-ranking Nazis," explained Zuschlag. These works of so-called degenerate art should also be returned to the owners or the museums.

Oskar Moll, 'Still Life with Poppies and Black Jug' 1916
Oskar Moll, 'Still Life with Poppies and Black Jug' (1916) Image: Bayer AG/Foto: Dirk Hansen

The Oskar Moll case

That was the case of the painting by Oskar Moll that Bayer AG has handed over to the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts. Even though Bayer AG said that the painting had been lawfully acquired in 1951, the company decided to donate the work to the museum as "an example of a new understanding of social and cultural responsibility in the 21st century."

It was determined that the Nazis had confiscated the painting in 1937, along with around 400 other works from the Leipzig museum. After the end of World War II, the paintings entered the art trade. Through the provenience research work of Bayer AG's culture department, Moll's still life was identified as a painting from the Leipzig collection.

Applying the Washington Principles

In order to promote provenience research, the German Lost Art Foundation was created in Magdeburg in 2015. Among other things, it is a central point of contact on a national and international level to  implement the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.

The German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg
The German Lost Art Foundation in MagdeburgImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Wolf

Also known as the Washington Declaration, the statement released on December 3, 1999 was endorsed by 44 countries, including Germany. It states that "Art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted should be identified," and that steps should be taken to find fair solutions to either return the artworks to pre-war owner or compensate them.

Even if the principles are non-binding, the agreement represents "the recognition of a historical debt," said Zuschlag.

Read more:  Nazi-looted art: Germany failing 'moral obligation' to return stolen objects

'The search for looted art is a permanent task'

The Gurlitt collection has been examined, but the work is far from over. New archive documents keep appearing, shedding new light on the ownership of certain works.

The two paintings that belonged to French art collector and notary Armand Dorville, and which are now being returned by Minister Grütters, were sold by court order in Nice within four days in 1942 and later came into the hands of Hildebrand Gurlitt.

"The restitutions show that the search for looted art is a permanent task," said Zuschlag. "A lot has happened, but it remains a big issue."

Since the beginning of 2020, there has been a "Help Desk" for Nazi-looted property in Berlin, where victims of the Nazis' confiscations of cultural assets can report their losses.