Germany stands by its commitment to return art looted by the Nazis, rejecting calls for an end to the restitution of works to Holocaust victims and their heirs, said Bernd Neumann, the culture minister.
Neumann was responding to comments by Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, published in this week’s Der Spiegel magazine. Rosenthal said art should remain in museums and the heirs of Nazi victims should have no claim to their family’s property.
“An end to the restitution of cultural goods lost through Nazi persecution is out of the question for the German government,” Neumann said in an e-mailed statement today. “We will continue to push for the identification of looted art in public collections and to reach a settlement with the rightful owner or the heirs.”
The Nazis looted at least 650,000 artworks from private collectors, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. Germany is one of 44 nations that agreed to the 1998 Washington principles on Holocaust-era assets.
Under that non-binding accord, governments agreed to achieve a “just and fair” solution with the prewar owners of art seized by the Nazis.
“The German government stands by its historical and moral responsibility,” Neumann said. “It would be unacceptable if, despite improved knowledge, we were to perpetuate the injustices already suffered by deciding against restitution.”
Rosenthal, himself of German Jewish origin, said rising art prices over the past years have “awakened greed.” He likened people who make a living out of the restitution of Nazi-looted art to vultures. Many paintings are sold immediately after restitution and some restitution lawyers earn as much as 50 percent of the value, he said.
Neumann’s ministry established a government agency charged with researching the provenance of art in public collections in November 2007. Recent restitutions in Germany include the return of a painting by Franz Marc that was owned by the Norddeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale AG, a state-owned bank in Hanover.
Rosenthal also said in the Spiegel interview that he is opposed to the restitution of approximately 1 million trophy artworks looted from Germany by the Soviet army at the end of the war.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at email@example.com.