How is Nazi-looted art returned?

The Economist 12 January 2014
By E. B.

IN NOVEMBER German authorities revealed that more than 1,400 valuable works of art had been confiscated from the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive octogenarian. The trove is full of the kind of avant-garde "degenerate" art the Nazis removed from Germany's state museums, such as works by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and Beckmann, as well as older gems, such as an engraving by Albrecht Dürer. Some of it may have come from Jews who were forced to flee or were sent to concentration camps. Surviving heirs and museums have been coming forward as the rightful owners. How is Nazi-looted artwork returned?

Between 1933 and 1945 the Nazis engaged in the biggest art theft in history. They amassed millions of works from mostly Jewish collectors and the museums of occupied territories. After the war the Allies returned much of this art to the looted countries, but these pieces often went to national collections instead of the original owners. And many artworks are still missing, either destroyed, in museums or private hands. The view that these artworks are "the last prisoners of war" gained ground in the 1990s. Distance from the Holocaust and the end of the cold war allowed people and institutions to turn to the matter of objects. In 1998 44 countries agreed to a plan, known as the "Washington Principles", for identifying and resolving claims for stolen art. But the pact is non-binding, and the legal status of this art is murky.

The process of claiming looted artwork is often opaque, ad-hoc, expensive and uncertain. Different countries follow different rules and there is no international arbitrator to resolve disputes. Ownership records are patchy, so these tussles are trickier than those over bank assets frozen during the war. Only five countries—Austria, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands—have set up independent national commissions for handling claims, and practices vary. In Germany the commission cannot force museums to negotiate. In America most museums are private, so the government cannot mandate restitution. Different statutes of limitations dictate claims on private collections, and the rising value of the disputed artworks has raised the stakes for everyone. Big auction houses, such as Christies and Sotheby's, research the provenance of every work and encourage settlements. But smaller houses mostly defer to the law, which tends to favour current owners. Claimants often must rely on the good will of collectors or institutions.

Under the 30-year statute of limitations of German law, Mr Gurlitt is not compelled to return any of his art, stolen or otherwise. (And German federal museums are not entitled to any of the "degenerate" art they were forced to deaccession, as these works were government property.) This puts German authorities in an uncomfortable position, which may inspire a new retroactive law. The Gurlitt discovery has also served to highlight just how awkward it is to reclaim art seized by the Nazis. Some hope this will boost efforts to create a single searchable database of looted objects (though an International Research Portal of different national archives is a decent alternative). Others are advocating a single international art-crime tribunal. By drawing more attention to this unresolved chapter of the Holocaust, the Munich hoard—valued at around €1 billion ($1.4 billion)—may prove priceless.
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