More voices demanding repatriation of looted art

The San Francisco Chronicle 9 March 2003
Kenneth Baker

As World War II recedes from living memory, a few explosive issues still make its reverberations felt.
One is the discovery and repatriation of artworks stolen by the Germans in their attempted conquest of Europe.

Two years ago, for example, the Yale University Art Gallery discovered that Herbert Schaeffer, the lender of several important old-master and modern paintings it had long displayed, had been a Nazi storm trooper.

A Washington resident identified a Courbet in the Schaeffer collection as the property of a deceased Jewish relative from Berlin. Other paintings lent by Schaeffer immediately came under suspicion of being war spoils.

A year later, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe informed the British Museum of claims by Ukrainian and Polish authorities that four old-master drawings in its collection had been misappropriated during the war years.

Investigations and court actions in cases such as these have become a feature of contemporary cultural life. Complicating the legal and moral issues involved is the fact that, facing Nazi invasion, many European museum officials falsified documents stating the whereabouts of precious objects.

Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine" (c. 1490), highlight of "Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland" at the Legion of Honor, symbolizes the potential success of cultural repatriation.

Considered by Hitler and his deputies one of the greatest treasures in Polish hands, and stolen by the Nazis from the Czartoryski collection, the "Lady With an Ermine" spent the war years in almost constant, imminent danger of destruction.

Hitler's vision of the Thousand Year Reich included cultural showpieces of all kinds, among them, museums stocked with the finest products of German culture, crowned by a private museum in his Austrian hometown of Linz.

The program required purging museums in Germany of "degenerate art," anything deemed unreflective of the superiority of Aryan culture, which meant all things modernist.

It also meant the confiscation of artworks and other treasures from public institutions and wealthy individuals within Germany and wherever the Nazis took control, including Poland.

In 1940, a furtive onlooker watched as Nazi soldiers ransacked the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. Seeing treasured objects of Polish art piled onto trucks and driven away, he said, "seemed like seeing old friends being murdered."

We now know, as few did then, that the round-up of artworks presaged the purge of Jews.

The furor over Nazi looting has touched off a transnational frenzy of new and renewed demands for repatriation of artworks stolen, liquidated or otherwise lost during wartime or colonial occupation. These range from Greece's perennial demands for Britain's return of the Parthenon "Elgin marbles" to Korean demands for the return of artifacts stolen by Japan during the Second World War and earlier.

Reflecting on the weight of such claims, it is worth remembering that Hitler's cultural officers frequently looted art treasures on the pretext of repatriating them in the aftermath of the wars of centuries past.
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