World Jewish Congress president urges Germany to speed up art return | News | DW | 30.01.2014
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World Jewish Congress president urges Germany to speed up art return

The president of the World Jewish Congress has accused German museums of a lack of transparency about works looted from Jews by the Nazis. Ronald Lauder said the government must do more to force them to act.

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Germany's looted art

In Berlin on Thursday, Lauder called on Germany to introduce laws facilitating the return of Nazi-looted art. He added that the country had not addressed the culpability of museums, where the Jewish Claims Conference estimates that 20,000 looted items remain on display.

"One of the main reasons that these problems still exist is that there is no law in Germany that addresses the restitution of looted art," Lauder said, adding that he discussed the issue with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Justice Minister Heiko Maas. "I encourage Germany to deal with Nazi-looted art in the same comprehensive manner," he said, calling the works "the last prisoners of World War II."

Germany has faced criticism over its handling of the discovery in November of Edvard Munch's "Reclining Half Nude I" (pictured above) and 1,406 other works in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, an 81-year-old whose father dealt looted art to fund Nazi activities on Hitler's orders.

Since the weekly magazine "Focus" broke the story of the art trove, debate has grown from ownership of works by artists including Dürer, Delacroix, Picasso and Matisse stashed in Gurlitz's Munich apartment into a broader controversy over paintings on open display in museums. Lauder, an honorary chairman of the board of trustees of New York's Museum of Modern Art, said the discovery of the Gurlitt trove should prompt a thorough examination of the provenance of works in public collections.

'Cultural Restitution Law'

Germany and 43 other countries signed 1998's "Washington Principles," which provide guidelines for locating and identifying looted artworks. According to a 2012 survey by Berlin's Institute for Museum Research, however, more than 2,000 German museums hold works created before 1945 but acquired after 1933 - the definition for property suspected of Nazi confiscation. Though Nazi forces did not necessarily loot every work acquired in this time frame and currently hanging in museums, only 285 institutions - less than 5 percent of all those registered in Germany - have researched the ownership history of such collections.

German authorities have set up a task force for the Schwabing art trove, named after the Munich district where Gurlitt's stash was found. Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, Germany's former deputy state minister for culture, leads the task force, which comprises 13 art and legal experts from Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Israel and the United States.

She has said the team's international profile would help "guarantee that our work is objective and of high quality."

mkg/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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