Cover-up that shames Germany

The Jewish Chronicle 7 November 2014
By Anne Webber

Exactly one year ago, it was revealed that a huge collection of 1,400 works of art, hidden since the Third Reich, had been discovered in the Munich flat of 79-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a leading dealer for the Nazis who had amassed looted art from all over Europe. The collection had been taken into custody over 18 months earlier. Astonishingly, the German authorities had kept it secret. It only became public when it was leaked to a news magazine.

The BBC's recent two-part Imagine programmes arose from a concept brought to the BBC by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. The discovery of the Gurlitt collection provided a springboard into the story of Germany's failure to address and resolve the issue of Nazi looted art.

While exemplary in the way it has dealt with the rest of its Nazi legacy, art is Germany's Achilles heel. Bound up with its identity as the creator of great art, it is still immensely difficult for Germany to come to terms with the role it played in enabling Jewish collectors to be persecuted and Jewish collections to be seized. The films highlight the continuities in the German art world in the Nazi and post-war periods to explain why so much looted art still remains hidden and unreturned.

For decades, there has been a conspiracy of silence about the fate of these artworks. When the existence of the Gurlitt collection was revealed, Alfred Weidinger, deputy director of the Belvedere, Austria's most important museum, said he didn't know what the furore was about: "The fact that this collection existed was not a secret. Every major art dealer in Southern Germany knew - and knew how extensive it was." It may have been known to the German art world, which has been helping the Gurlitt family quietly dispose of these works for decades, but not to the dispossessed families.

Just under a year since the German government appointed a Task Force to publish and research the works in the Gurlitt collection, only two paintings have been designated as looted. Both were known to be looted from the outset.

Despite a commitment to provide full details of the collection so that families could identify their missing works, only 30 per cent have been published, none since January 2014.

Those who seek to have their art returned have been treated with disdain, such as 89-year-old David Toren, whose family's painting, Max Liebermann's Two Riders on a Beach, was seized by the Gestapo in Breslau. He has been forced into the American courts to get the painting back, although it is one of the two acknowledged as looted by the Task Force.

The German authorities have moved to dismiss the suit. Such delaying tactics are intolerable.

Some families who have been fortunate enough to recover paintings held in German museums for decades have been harshly criticised if they sell them. Some museum directors have even gone so far as to say that the Jews only want their art back because they like money. Such antisemitic tropes are deeply distressing. It seems hard for German institutions to accept, as their own former Culture Minister said, that there are "thousands and thousands" of looted works of art in German museums and that, until they are identified and returned, no line can be drawn under this issue. Still today only one-third of German museums have undertaken any provenance research.

Despite the Gurlitt case prompting the promise that German law would be changed within the year to enable restitution, there is still no law nor prospect of one.

The families we represent remain upset that so much of their art is still missing and no one can say where it is. Even when it is located, there is often considerable obstruction. One of our cases involves a looted painting now in a cathedral in Germany, which acquired it from the wife of Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi Gauleiter of Vienna who was found guilty at Nuremberg of war crimes involving the deportation of 60,000 Jews. The cathedral refuses to return the painting saying it considers it an investment and wishes to recoup costs. Such are the attitudes families still encounter in modern-day Germany.

Anne Webber is Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe.
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