Looting and Restitution. Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts at the Jewish Museum Berlin

Artdaily 19 September 2008

BERLIN.- Sixty years after the end of the war, looting and restitution of Jewish cultural artifacts is still a topic of burning interest. Numerous open questions and unsolved cases remain and opinions arouse controversy. The exhibition "Looting and Restitution. Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present" narrates the historical events, context, and consequences of the looting carried out by the Nazis throughout Europe. The exhibition tracks what happened to individual cultural artifacts confiscated by the Nazis – from paintings and libraries through porcelain to silverware and private photos – and the fates of their rightful Jewish owners. Alongside well-known names such as the Rothschild family or the art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, long-forgotten collections such as Sigmund Nauheim's Judaica collection and the pianist Wanda Landowska's collection of historical musical instruments will also be shown.

The exhibition also looks at those who profited from and played an active role in the looting. It highlights Nazi organizations such as "Sonderauftrag Linz" and "Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg" and the disreputable role played by museums, libraries, and art dealers. Not least, the exhibition looks at the shortfalls and inadequacies of the politics of restitution following the war, and the claims that were not settled at the time which shape the current debate.

The 15 exemplary cases documented in the exhibition demonstrate the geographical extent of the looting, the diversity of the looted items, and the historical and legal complexity of the theme.

One of the cases documented in the exhibition is the valuable porcelain and book collections belonging to the von Klemperer family from Dresden. These were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1938 and taken to the Dresden State Art Collection and the Saxonian State Library. Since the GDR refused to restitute property seized by the Nazis, the von Klemperer family's claims were only recognized after the fall of the wall. While the artifacts located in Saxony were restituted, negotiations concerning the incunabulum collection held at the Russian State Library in Moscow have so far been unsuccessful.

In Vienna in 1939, the Gestapo confiscated the library of Heinrich Schnitzler, son of the famous Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler, consisting of over 6,000 books and private photos belonging to the author who had died in 1931. About one third of this library was returned to Heinrich Schnitzler in the late 1940s. only in the course of provenance research carried out by the Austrian National Library from 2001 to 2003, did. But only in 2005 were 14 texts and private photographs, which had been requested on several previous occasions, restituted to the heirs of Heinrich Schnitzler, who had died in 1982.

Otto Mueller's painting entitled "Boy with two standing girls and one sitting girl" belongs to the paintings whose journey was traceable from looting to recovery. The Gestapo confiscated it from the auction of Ismar Littmann's art collection in Breslau in 1935. It was then shown at the "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich in 1937, after which it was sold. Ismar Littmann's heirs arranged to repurchase it from the Emden Kunsthalle, Henri and Eske Nannen Foundation in 1999.

Looting as Part of the Nazi Annihilation Politics
Looting of art and other cultural artifacts was part of the anti-Semitic persecution and annihilation politics from 1933 on. In an accompanying background story, the exhibition illustrates the various phases and the radicalization of this policy and presents important players and profiteers.

Restitution Waves: "Fair and Just"?
In a second background story, the exhibition narrates the various waves of restitution. The US military government introduced the first restitution regulations in Germany in 1947. From 1948, organizations such as the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO) were recognized as heirs of heirless Jewish property. In the Federal Republic, the introduction of Federal Indemnification Law and Federal Restitution Law met with fierce political resistance and was only achieved with considerable pressure on the part of the Allies. Restitution remained incomplete.

Unsettled restitution and compensation cases re-entered public awareness following the fall of the wall: Swiss bank accounts, insurance, forced labor and also works of art. In December 1998, the "Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets" endorsed the "Washington Principles." These committed all the signing states to arrange for provenance research in their museums and to grant "fair and just" compensation to heirs of former Jewish proprietors when cultural artifacts had been confiscated by Nazi authorities, and that irrespective of limitation and preclusion periods. This commitment enabled numerous unsettled cases to be considered anew or for the first time.

The Jewish Museum Berlin would like to illustrate with this historical, documentational exhibition "Looting and Restitution. Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present" why so many restitution questions remain unsettled. The Museum thus aims to contribute to the objectification of the debate, following the controversy surrounding a few spectacular cases of recent years, such as the confiscation of two paintings by Egon Schiele in New York, the return and sale at auction of Gustav Klimt's "Golden Adele" and the case of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene."

The 600 m² exhibition area was designed by Wandel Hoefer Lorch + Hirsch Architects (new synagogue in Dresden, Jewish Center Munich).
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