Handbook helps Jewish families claim stolen art

Taipei Times 23 April 2007
AFP Berlin

In the wake of sensational sales of art that was seized by the Nazis, German authors have published the first handbook to help Jewish families win back masterpieces that are still in the wrong hands.

The 528-page tome Nazi Looted Art -- Art Restitution Worldwide is sold as a do-it-yourself law manual for heirs of Holocaust victims hoping to confront museums and collectors in different corners of the world in a bid to recover lost canvasses.

Co-author Gunnar Schnabel makes an educated guess that "there are still thousands of masterpieces and tens of thousands of lesser paintings that should be returned to the rightful heirs.

"For example, some 30,000 art works were taken out of France, but 16,000 never resurfaced. It is the museums' policy to keep all of this top secret. There are works in basements and vaults," Schnabel, a lawyer who handles restitution claims, said.

Even before it hit the shelves last month, the book he wrote with historian Monika Tatzkow was adding to pressure on the German government to return a painting from the Biedermeier era featured on its cover.

The work, Fiat Justitia by Carl Spitzweg, formed part of the German government's art collection for decades after World War II.

But it originally belonged to Jewish trader Leo Bendel, who died in the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1940.

In February, as articles about the book appeared in most Austrian and German newspapers, the German finance ministry announced it would return the painting to the Bendel heirs.

Schnabel and Tatzkow said they hope to force museums to investigate the provenance of their works and come clean on art they obtained thanks to the Nazis' systematic seizure of Jewish collections that peaked in the early 1940s.

German museums panicked last year when Berlin's Bruecke Museum had to part with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Berlin Street Scene, a prized Expressionist painting looted from a Jewish shoemaker.

When the claimant let Christie's auction the work and it was bought by US cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder for US$38 million, curators began bracing for a flood of claims from heirs hoping for a windfall from a buoyant art market.

Lauder is famous for collecting restituted art and an obvious target for criticism that a moral issue is being commercialized.

His first piece was a Van Gogh drawing discovered by Tatzkow which he bought for 7 million euros (US$9.5 million), but in 2005 he paid a record US$135 million for Adele Block Bauer I, an iconic portrait by Secessionist -- the Austrian name for Art Nouveau -- artist Gustav Klimt, after it was restituted to the sitter's niece.

"It's only about money and speculation," Martin Roth, the director of Dresden's State Art Collection, complained recently.

Museums such as the Bruecke say they cannot afford to follow the example set by Vienna's Leopold Museum, which invited scrutiny of the origins of its unrivalled Egon Schiele collection.
It has also spent millions contesting a claim for the Austrian artist's Portrait of Wally.

But ahead of an international conference on looted art taking place in Potsdam near Berlin next week, historian Julius Schoeps said: "I think the museums also lack the will."

He advised museums to loan out works to raise funds to pay out claimants as a way of keeping their collections intact.

Schnabel thinks there "is not enough money to buy back all the paintings the Nazis stole," but said in his experience museums are not prepared to pay even modest reparations.

"Initially, with the Kirchner painting, the granddaughter was happy to accept a sum below the market price but the museum refused," he said.

Tatzkow has accused museums of playing for time in the knowledge that the generation of Jews whose parents perished in the Holocaust will not be around forever.

"They are trying to sit the problem out, to wait for time to pass," she said.

"The story of a missing artwork will eventually get lost in a family. The children will know something but once they are dead, restitution becomes more difficult," she said.
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