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The Hassles of Returning Stolen Art

DW staff (nda)
March 3, 2005

A long legal wrangle in Germany over the return of three paintings seized by the Nazis was resolved on Wednesday. But many cases remain unsolved and bitter feuds prevent other paintings being returned.

Original owners of stolen art face opposition from some museumsImage: AP

A cultural legacy left over from the Third Reich which German museums continue to face is the return of stolen art. Since 1998 when a conference in Washington heralded the beginning of a concerted effort by Germany and 43 other countries to find and return artworks stolen by the Nazis during World War II, museums across the country have experienced the headaches attached to this quest.

One on-going saga involving three paintings seized by the Nazis between 1937 and 1939 was resolved this week when they were returned to their original Jewish owners after a long legal wrangle, a local official said on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for city authorities in Wuppertal, western Germany, said the handover, which should have happened more than a year ago but was held up by a legal technicality, would go ahead "as soon as possible, once the conditions for their return are set in a contract."

The process of handing back the three paintings, which are currently on display in the city's Heydt Museum, had previously been delayed by doubts about who the real owners were.

The work "Felsige Flusslandschaft," by Frankfurt artist Otto Scholderer, was bought by the museum in 1939 after its forced sale a year earlier. "Erinnerung vom Dampfboot auf der Donau," by Adolph Menzel, was given as a gift to the Heydt in 1956.

The owners of Hans von Marees' "Tatar mit Pferd," forced into sale in 1937, fled Germany for the Netherlands where they were caught and killed in a concentration camp in 1944. The painting was bought by the museum in 1948 and is expected to be given to the grandchildren of its deceased owners.

Complications the rule, not exception

Kunstdiebstahl Kunstraub Lucas Cranach
Image: AP

Such complications are not unusual. Returning stolen art to the rightful owners 60 years after it was first taken is an awkward affair. Despite the best efforts of the German states and local authorities, which have been keeping an Internet database of reportedly stolen artefacts, many critics have derided these attempts, citing inexact information and conflicts of interest.

One particularly high-profile case is still caught in a bitter impasse due to these reasons. Emil Nold's "Buchsbaumgarten," valued at around €500,000 ($656,275), remains in the possession of Duisburg's Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum despite substantiated claims by Ruth Haller, a relative of Jewish lawyer and art collector Ismar Littmann.

After the Nazis banned Littmann from practicing, he committed suicide in 1934 and his family had to sell part of his collection. The rest was confiscated by the Gestapo.

The Duisburg museum bought the painting in the 1950s without any knowledge of the painting's history and now refuses to return it.

Legal gray area

Portrait of Wally, painted by the late Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele. The Museum of Modern Art turned down pleas from two Jewish families to hold onto two paintings in a traveling exhibit while they press claims that the artworks were lost to Nazi wartime plundering.Image: AP

There are very few legal statutes regarding the return of stolen art appropriated by the Nazis. While court rulings decide the fate of some, the majority of cases are fought on moral and ethical grounds and many victims of the Third Reich base their cases on emotional pleas.

However, since the summer of 2003, the Federal Stolen Art Ethics Committee has mediated in many cases between victims and museums. Even so, the committee can only recommend solutions and cannot rule in favor of one party or the other. Its track record is weak; it has only one successful mediation to its name.