Germany tracing artwork and its Nazi past

International Herald Tribune 22 December 2008

This industrial southwestern city is often considered the heart of German engineering and entrepreneurial elan. Rebuilt after the Allied bombing raids in 1945, it reflects the Swabian region, known to this day as a home of hard work, thrift and industriousness.

But there is another aspect to this almost ascetic region. Stuttgart has a spectacular art museum, with a wonderful 20th-century collection. Paintings by the German modernists are here, including Franz Marc's "Kleine blaue Pferde" and Lyonel Feininger's "Barfüsserkirche."

These two paintings, however, are just some of the tens of thousands of art works in the country's museums that have become caught up in the seemingly never-ending consequences of Germany's Nazi past. Big galleries and museums are being inundated with claims by lawyers representing the descendants of persecuted and murdered German Jews.

The lawyers claim that art owned by Jews had been seized or sold under duress before 1945. After the war, many of these paintings resurfaced in auction rooms, private collections or museums. Sixty years later, critics say that German museums have been extremely reluctant to give back art acquired under dubious circumstances.

The issue has become deeply emotional among museum directors, lawyers and the descendants of Jews because it captures the difficulties in dealing with what was until recently a little known - or, at least, little discussed - aspect of Germany's past.

"This is about dealing with a miserable part of our history, which some of the museums would prefer not to confront: how museum directors collaborated with the Nazi regime," said Monika Tatzkow, a lawyer who specializes in property claims.

In June 1937, Hitler ordered museums to get rid of any paintings that contained "German degenerate art since 1910." Thousands of avant-garde paintings, many by Jewish artists or owned by Jews, were removed from museums. Some were stolen or put into safekeeping. Others were sold - probably below the market value - by Jewish families desperate to obtain visas to escape Nazi Germany.

After the war, the German government was slow to address the issue of restitution. During the 1950s, it compensated some of the owners or their descendants, but the numbers and sums were insignificant. The issue then slumbered for decades.

It was not until 1998, when the government attended a seminal conference in Washington devoted to returning art to the descendants of Nazi victims, that it began to take the issue seriously. Despite some misgivings from the Foreign Ministry in Berlin that there would be an avalanche of new claims for restitution, Germany, along with 43 other countries, agreed that any art works confiscated during the Nazi era were to be searched for, identified and the rightful heirs determined. Then, "a fair and just solution" would be reached with the heirs.

Last week, the issue bubbled to the forefront once more. Art directors, lawyers and Jewish descendants attended a government-sponsored conference in Berlin to assess the results of the 1998 Washington conference, and the consensus emerged that Germany was still lagging behind other countries.

"The German government has taken very positive steps, but we are disappointed with the approach of most of the museums," said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the nongovernmental Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, a group dating to the 1950s. "Many of the German museums have been very slow to carry out the provenance research which is necessary for there to be a fair and just claims process and, as importantly, an open and proper accounting of history."

There is no single explanation for this failure. Some museum directors say they lack sufficient staff or funds to undertake the research. Others fear that if they establish the provenance, or legal ownership, they could end up giving back many paintings, leaving several museums bereft of prestigious collections. And if they tried to buy them back, they complain that they would have to compete with big auction houses and could not outbid private collectors or dealers.

"Whatever the reasons for this foot dragging, what is at issue is the past, namely how the museum directors complied with Hitler's decree," Tatzkow said. "Those same directors were reinstated after 1945. The museums have been reluctant to deal with restitution in any serious way because they are afraid it would show just how complicit, how 'brown,' the directors were in banning those works of art."

Sean Rainbird, director of Stuttgart's Staatsgalerie, is cooperating with a new, state-backed, public Internet database that attempts to trace the ownership history of the paintings. He is also digging through archives in Stuttgart to establish how the museum obtained works banned by the Nazis that made their way onto the market after 1945.

"There is the issue of enforced transactions of every sale of every Jewish collection that happened during the Nazi times," said Rainbird, a former curator of the Tate Modern in London. "There were cases where individuals were allowed to take their collections out of the country, and there were some dealers, in a gesture of solidarity, who helped them and were dealing with them in an honest way.

"The issue is establishing a legal situation with title," he added. "Some archives were lost, some receipts were lost. It is very complicated."

Despite such difficulties, Rainbird has made it his priority to trace the ownership titles of many of his contemporary German paintings. Indeed, the museum recently returned Paul Klee's "Rhythm of the Windows" (1920), which it then bought back for more than €2 million, or $2.8 million. As for the Marc and Feininger paintings, their future has yet to be resolved.

"The Marc came to us from a collection in 1978," Rainbird said.

By now, museums are coming under political pressure from the federal government, even if it means muddying the question of ownership. "There is the political impulse from Berlin that one should return paintings to the original owners without finding out all the details, or the circumstances, for instance, if any of these paintings had been legitimately acquired," Rainbird said.

It is as if the German government wants to be rid of the problem once and for all. In an ideal world, that attitude would not be proper, either. But faced with the reluctance of many museum directors, such political pressure may be necessary to redress some of the injustices of the past.
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