Germany Aims to Boost Art Research as Nazi Loot Claims Persist

Bloomberg 20 November 2006
Catherine Hickley

The German government and museums pledged to beef up research into the ownership background of art in public collections, as paintings restituted to the heirs of Nazi victims sell for millions at international auctions.

Culture Minister Bernd Neumann, who convened a meeting of museum chiefs and regional arts officials today in the German capital, said art provenance research should be coordinated nationwide. The gathering took place after a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner fetched a record $38.1 million at a New York Christie's International auction on Nov. 8.

Berlin's Bruecke Museum, at the city's request, in August handed Kirchner's 1913 ``Berlin Street Scene'' to the heir of the Hess family, a Jewish family persecuted by the Nazis. The decision provoked an indignant response, with the Friends of the Bruecke Museum, an association of the museum's patrons, accusing Berlin of surrendering the painting too readily.

``The goal is to pacify all participants and to return this somewhat emotional debate to the issues,'' Neumann said in a statement. ``Germany stands resolutely by its moral responsibility to restitute art looted by the Nazis. The restitution process, however, must be more transparent, better coordinated and more accountable.''

Museums and officials are trying to balance the moral imperative to hand back art looted by the Nazis against the public interest in keeping important national works in German museums. Museums are often unable to carry out their own research into provenance for lack of resources -- or unwilling because of fears they may uncover ownership doubts that would result in the loss of important works in their collections.

Scant Research

Neumann's statement said the government will advise museums, particularly smaller institutions, when works in their collection face new claims, and will also try to increase the transparency of restitution decisions.

``There has been too little provenance research in Germany,'' Martin Roth, the director of Dresden's public art collections, said in a telephone interview before the conference. ``To do it properly takes a great deal of time.''

Paintings returned to Nazi victims' heirs in restitution cases helped Christie's set a record of $491.5 million at its auction of impressionist and modern art. A Gustav Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, returned by Austria to the rightful heirs this year, fetched the top price of $87.9 million.

Lauder's Purchase

The auction prices are beyond the reach of German museums. Kirchner's painting, which shows two elegantly dressed women and men in dark suits and hats, was bought by Neue Galerie, a New York museum founded by cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder.

Michael Eissenhauer, the president of the German Museums Association, said he had ``mixed feelings'' about the Kirchner painting sale. In a statement issued the day after the sale, he welcomed the fact that Lauder's museum would keep the painting accessible to the public.

Still, he said, the sale showed ``it's worth getting on the loot train to seek out paintings that could offer the art market fresh blood'' and described restituted art as ``big business.''

The dispute over the Kirchner painting hinged on whether Tekla Hess's sale of the painting in 1936, when she was living in Switzerland, was made under duress from the Gestapo and on whether she got the asking price. The Berlin Senate could not prove that she received the money and so decided not to challenge the claim.

Two other Kirchner paintings in the Bruecke Museum are also possible targets of restitution cases, according to Ludwig von Pufendorf, president of the Friends of the Bruecke Museum. They are ``Sich Kaemmende Akt'' (``Nude Combing Hair'') and ``Im Cafegarten'' (``In the Cafe Garden.'')
Roth in Dresden said he would favor a central ``fire fund'' allowing museums to offer market prices quickly to the heirs of restituted art.

``None of us would say that Jewish property should not be returned to the heirs,'' said Roth. ``Restitution is a daily business for me. But it seems that the museums are paying the price and being plundered to make this compensation.''
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