Germany Announces “Center for Cultural Property Losses”: Real Progress or Window Dressing?

Art Law Report 9 October 2014
By Nicholas O'Donnell

After numerous intimations by German Minister of Culture Monika Grütters, the German federal cabinet announced on Wednesday the official formation of the German Center for Cultural Property Losses (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste).  Citing its “awareness of the special responsibility for the reworking of Nazi art theft,” the ruling CDU coalition issued this statement (my translation):

The Foundation for the German Center for Cultural Property Losses will raise the [] of provenance research into Nazi-looted art to a new level.  Its goal is to coordinate, strengthen, and expand the countless activities and facilities of provenance research.  In this way, it will be ensured that wrong will be punished through the strengthened state support.

Perhaps because of this description, English language coverage has referred to the new center as the Bureau for Provenance Research, despite the actual name.

The announcement stated that the Federal Republic of Germany will contribute 4 million Euros per year, while the 16 Bundesländer will collectively add about 600,000 more.

This is a positive development, and should be acknowledged as such.  For many years, well-meaning German museum professionals have simply lacked material support to research their own collections, leaving them with the choice to do it on their own time and nickel, or not do it at all.  Even with the will and the time, the scope of the task is daunting.  Coordinated, national-level support is important.

But 5 million Euros is not as much as it sounds.  The intention is to build out the existing Lost Art coordination center in Magdeburg, and anyone involved in a non-profit budget knows that even a thin staff with a physical plant to attend to costs a great deal of money.

It has not been a good year for Germany, as the anniversary of the Hildebrand and Cornelius Gurlitt story approaches.  The Task Force’s progress is unknown, with a small handful of announcements so far.  The last two Limbach Commission decisions were fiascos.  Minister Grütters deserves praise for charting this course early on in the Gurlitt saga, when most of the focus was on the still-stalled “Lex Gurlitt” to extend the statute of limitations.

The flip side, however, is that this announcement, and the center itself, could provide cover for continued inaction, or only a slightly increased pace of research.  That would be a shame.  Here’s to hoping it’s the first step towards progress.
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