Diligence Promised in Studying Looted Art

New York Times 8 January 2013
By Melissa Eddy

BERLIN — Faced with the monumental task of tracing the owners of hundreds of artworks that resurfaced last year after they were hidden for decades in a Munich apartment, Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel has a pretty firm idea of how long she and her staff will need. But don’t expect her to announce it.

“Of course, I have a notion, but if I were to make that public, it would create pressure that would not be helpful to our job,” said Ms. Berggreen-Merkel, who had barely adjusted to retirement before she was tapped late last year to head the investigation into the collection, which contains many works believed to have been wrongfully taken from their Jewish owners by the Nazis.

“We are dealing with fates, with complex, complicated research,” Ms. Berggreen-Merkel said in an interview. “Diligence is more important than an imaginary date.”

The task force is to consist of about 10 experts in art restitution, provenance research as well as the history of Germany’s Nazi era and the value of art. On Wednesday, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany nominated two veteran provenance researchers to join the team.

Ms. Berggreen-Merkel, who insisted on an international panel, welcomed the naming of Sophie Lillie, a scholar and author who has researched Nazi-era looted art and assets in order to assist with restitution claims, and Agnes Peresztegi, who practices law in Budapest and serves as the European executive director of the Commission for Art Recovery.

Already a team of art historians has been sifting through the trove of about 1,400 items seized by Bavarian authorities from the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt in the spring of 2012. The discovery was not made public until the German newsmagazine Focus published a report in November. Of those items, several hundred have been determined to belong to Mr. Gurlitt legally — including correspondence and paintings by his paternal grandfather, Louis Gurlitt — and have already been returned, Ms. Berggreen-Merkel said.

“Included in these 1,400 items were greeting cards, business records, auction house catalogs — all things that are not sensational,” she said.

The remaining roughly 900 artworks were then further categorized to sort out items that were created after 1945, excluding them from having been looted by the Nazis, leaving 590 works with questionable provenance. They are being professionally photographed, scanned and posted to the German government site

At the same time, the images are being stored in another, password-protected databank that only members of the task force will be able to access and exchange information.

“The purpose of the task force is to determine the history of the artworks,” Ms. Berggreen-Merkel said. It also functions as the first point of contact for anyone who believes they may have a claim to one of the works.

Ms. Berggreen-Merkel, 64, served as deputy state secretary for culture in the federal government from 2008 until 2013. Previously, she worked for more than three decades in the Bavarian culture ministry.

She stressed that the panel has no legal authority, which remains in the hands of prosecutors in Augsburg, Bavaria.

Germany faced intense criticism from Jewish groups and the United States after it was revealed that authorities had kept the existence of the works found in Mr. Gurlitt’s apartment secret for nearly two years, leading the task force to be set up.

Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the claims conference, said that while the task force is important, the larger issue of restitution still needs to be addressed. He estimated there are about 20,000 artworks throughout Germany that were looted by the Nazis and still have not been returned to their rightful owners.

“We expect Germany to take the moral lead,” he said.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024