The American Jewish Committee is calling on the German parliament to form a special commission of inquiry to investigate Nazi-looted artwork on display in German museums, the organization’s Berlin office said.
While an array of advocates have proposed different solutions to Germany’s looted artwork challenges, the AJC is the first major organization to propose the creation of an investigative commission.
The proposal underscores the increasing public interest of Jewish communities in the fate of looted artwork in Germany, an issue that has also drawn recent attention from the Israeli and American governments.
Deidre Berger, director of AJC’s Berlin Ramer Institute, said on Sunday that it is critical the German parliament call the investigative body – formally named Enquete Commission – in response to the discovery of hundreds of pieces of artwork in the apartment of the son of a Nazi art dealer.
While the artwork found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt was privately held, and therefore different from Nazi-looted artwork held in public German museums, Berger said the renewed public interest in the fate of this artwork should motivate a formal inquiry.
“This has been a long neglected chapter of the Holocaust... and efforts at restitution have been patchy, uncoordinated and largely unsuccessful,” Berger said.
“Given the advanced age of those survivors still with us, and family heirs who grew up with this loss, we think it’s imperative to create a framework to accelerate restitution to the degree still possible these many years later,” she said.
The Gurlitt trove highlighted the convoluted state of art restitution in Germany. In particular, art restitution advocates believe that thousands of pieces of artwork – stolen from Jews by the Nazis – are currently in the possession of German museums.
Berger, however, did not place blame solely on museums.
She said German museums often lack the resources to complete complex research into the provenance, or ownership history, of pieces of artwork.
“It takes a tremendous amount of resources to do this kind of research,” said Berger, who has a degree in art history. Therefore, she said, the investigative commission could recommend that the federal government fund more art researchers.
She also proposed that the government could “certify” museums that have checked their art collections for looted works and make those certifications public.
The leader of the Left Party’s group in the parliament’s Committee for Culture and Media said the proposal is “definitely worth considering.”
Sigrid Hupach said in a statement that the government has displayed a “scandalous lack of transparency and foot-dragging.”
She added that the Gurlitt find shows “the urgent need for a legally binding framework regulating the restitution of confiscated art.”
Chris Marinello, the director of Art Recovery International, said that he is “fully” supportive of the AJC’s proposal.
But, he wrote in an email, “I’d like to see the commission’s reach extended into private collections and the trade, while providing claimants with the resources to assist them in obtaining restitution.”
Anne Webber, the co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said that a number of recent proposals to reform Germany’s approach to looted artwork “all reflect the fact that organizations and families worldwide consider the situation in Germany untenable with regard to the speed of identification and process of return of Nazi-looted art.”
“It is essential that the German government takes this on board and acts quickly to remedy the situation, especially as it is now almost 70 years since the end of the war,” she said.
A quarter of the parliament must be in favor for an Enquete Commission to form.
The commissions, which have historically ranged from analyzing Internet and digital society to assessing the impact of communism in Germany, are staffed by lawmakers and outside experts.