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Shedding light

Adelheid Feilcke/ rbNovember 26, 2013

The case of the seized Gurlitt art trove in Munich clearly involves thorny legal issues, but the central issue remains justice. Not everything that is legal is also justified, writes DW's Adelheid Feilcke.


For three weeks now, lawyers, politicians, the media and, finally, a task force set up by Berlin have been trying to penetrate the almost impossible maze of factual and moral questions opened up by the Gurlitt case. It's an effort to impose some order on the legal claims and issues surrounding the discovery of collector and heir Cornelius Gurlitt's artistic treasures.

Adelheid Feilcke (c) DW
Adelheid Feilcke is head of DW's culture departmentImage: DW

Both German and international audiences have followed news and reactions concerning the sensational discovery of the paintings with keen interest. Germany's way of dealing with its Nazi past continues to command attention. Even almost 70 years after the end of World War II, these issues remain deeply sensitive.

Striking a balance

The establishment of the task force and reaching out to representatives from Jewish victims' institutions, such as the Jewish Claims Conference, are steps in the right direction. Making careful distinctions on the paintings' legal status in terms of ownership is also absolutely necessary. And it's appropriate that those paintings to which Gurlitt is unequivocally entitled be returned to the 80-year-old as soon as possible.

A pragmatic solution for his protection and that of his works of art should also be found. The authorities must act not only legally but also humanely toward Gurlitt. Injustice should not be answered with unjust methods - even if an agitated public spurred on by the media is making calls to the contrary.

Legal loopholes emerge

Many paintings in the collection present scenarios in which legal, historical and moral complications collide. Here, too, it's in everyone's interest to clarify things as quickly as possible with the necessary effort, expert advice and political commitment. This must be done painting by painting, as each work has its own history involving a combination of private owners, museums, art collectors, forced sales, expropriation, or questionable donations in Germany's post-war art market - unnoticed and secretive.

But in addition to clarifying claims to restitution, Germany has to face its historical responsibility, even if this means making legislative changes to account for expired statutes of limitation. The question of why law from 1938 cannot be changed now has yet to be answered.

In the Gurlitt case, an exemplary solution must be found because the works discovered in Munich are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Both private and public art collections house many works whose provenance remains questionable or uninvestigated.

Success story not impossible

The Gurlitt case offers a chance for directing more attention and financial support to investigating the history of individual pieces, thus shedding additional light on Nazi injustices. A transparent and task-oriented approach would also help set a new standard for Germany's lawmakers and judiciary in working through and compensating for Nazi crimes.

As such, the Munich collection could still become a success story - even if it comes late. The pressure is high on those involved, in part because the world will view the case as a benchmark for Germany's way of dealing with its past.