Nazi-looted art: Why Germany hasn't dealt with it

Deutsche Welle 24 November 2014
Interview by Anne-Sophie Brändlin

Eighty years after the Nazis looted many famous artworks from museums and Jewish owners, Germany is still failing to deal with the issue, says Anne Webber from the Commission for Looted Art in Europe.

Ms. Webber, as co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, you help families, institutions and governments recover artworks that were stolen by the Nazis. Jutta Limbach, head of the Limbach Commission, which advises on questions of restitutions of Nazi-looted art, has recently demanded that so-called "degenerate art" should be returned to the German museums they were originally taken from. Do you think that's a valid claim?

Anne Webber: Since it was revealed that the Gurlitt collection contains many "degenerate" works [Eds: The Nazis labeled works they considered to be culturally inferior "degenerate."] taken from German museums in the "degenerate art" action of 1937, some German museums have been lobbying for the right to have them returned. But they were legally taken and the law of 1938 governing that has never been repealed. Obviously many German museums would like to get back all their "degenerate" artworks and will feel encouraged by Jutta Limbach's statement. However, these artworks were sold all over the world legally and attempts to recover them will inevitably be resisted, even if the law is now repealed.

Another interesting question it raises is how this move will impact on museum priorities. As it is, only one-third of German museums have undertaken provenance research to identify Nazi looted art in their collections, despite an 18-year commitment to do so. Many have always claimed not to have sufficient resources. Let's hope this move towards recovering "degenerate art" will not further displace that priority.

Anne Webber helps recover Nazi-looted art on behalf of families, institutions and governments worldwide

There still seems to be a huge reluctance in Germany to appreciate the moral and ethical significance of holding on to looted works of art. This new push to recover "degenerate art" raised moral and ethical issues because, let's be clear, works of art that were considered "degenerate" under the Nazi regime and removed from German museums are not the same as Nazi-looted art, which refers to art that was taken under conditions of persecution, brutality and murder from mainly Jewish people between 1933 and 1945.

There are many families who have been searching for decades for their looted artworks and many museums which do not reveal that they have them. It would be dismaying if museums were now to focus their efforts on restoring their own collections rather than on returning the looted art in their possession.

Since the Gurlitt collection story broke, German museums have been pushing for a repeal of the law. If the priority for them is now getting these works of art back, then there needs to also be some clarity on what impact this is going to have on the provenance research work on Nazi-looted art.

Many Holocaust survivors or their relatives have been trying to reclaim paintings that were stolen from them for years, but often they still haven't been successful. Why is the process of restoring Nazi-looted art so time-consuming and complicated?

There are two reasons. The first is research and its publication. Two-thirds of German museums have yet to undertake any provenance research and publish their findings - which means that families must search singlehandedly to locate their missing artworks when they could be in any collection in any museum in any country. That's why over 90 percent of still missing works cannot be found.

The second reason is the restitution process. In Germany, it's currently up to the museums which possess the works of art to decide whether or not they should be returned. That is a fundamental conflict of interest. Normally, you wouldn't go to whoever was holding a piece of stolen property and say, "Please, could you tell me if I can have it back or not." You'd go to an independent third party, which is normally either the police, or a court, or a panel.

The Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family has been challenging Bavarian courts to get Picasso's "Madame Soler" back, which was looted by the Nazis

At the moment, cases in dispute can only be referred to the Limbach Commission if both parties agree to go there, which means the option is not available in many cases. But there is also a problem in that the Limbach Commission doesn't have any written terms of reference or rules of procedure.

German museums have been saying for years that they would like to have the basis on which they should return Nazi-looted art clarified; they have wanted an art restitution law. That's important to reduce their conflict of interest, but even so it is clearly not right that they as holders of the looted property should be both judge and jury.

Do you see any progress in the way Nazi-looted art is handled in Germany at all?

Of course there's progress, but it's halting. Despite the outcry over the issues surrounding the handling of the Gurlitt collection by the German authorities, few lessons seem to have been learned. There have been many concerns internationally, including about the lack of transparency, lack of communication and lack of commitment to restitute. Just this week, Alfred Weidinger, deputy director of Vienna's Belvedere, the most important museum in Austria, said, and I'm quoting him: "Germany is definitely not taking its responsibility seriously; even the task force is just a token gesture. (…) They have done everything wrong. (…) In Germany they are clearly trying to sit it out until all the Holocaust victims have died, until no more claims are made, until everything has been forgotten and consigned to the past.

Why do you think Germany is failing to own up to this specific part of history?

The Max Liebermann painting "Two Riders at the Beach" is said to have been stolen by the Nazis

I think there are many reasons. One is the lack of leadership at state and museum level. Another is the complicity of the museums in the actual seizure of the works of art in the Nazi period. It must be hard today to work in a museum with an otherwise good reputation and discover how the museum and its directors and curators were involved in the expropriations and how the museum came to acquire some of its collection. So far we have not seen many histories of the museums' role in the Nazi era. But what did happen, of course, was that the museums and the director of the museums and the curators were involved, some very centrally, in the seizure of art. They knew where the art collections were, they knew the collectors, they were brought in as experts and appraisers to help the Nazis take this art and dispose of it. That's one of the reasons why there is so much looted art in German museums today.

Another very important reason is that museums wish to keep the art in their collections and don't dispose of it willingly, even when it's stolen. In fact, they seem to become more attached to it the longer they have it and then assert that they have a greater right and attachment to it than the rightful owner. The rightful owner may then be cast as "greedy" or "only interested in the money," using rather unpleasant anti-Semitic tropes as a way of downplaying the museums' determination to keep it. It's ironic that much of the art is works that the museums weren't interested in acquiring it at the time.

If it's hard for Germany to address these issues, how do you feel about Gurlitt having bequeathed his valuable art collection to the Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland?

Switzerland has undertaken even less provenance research than Germany and has hardly restituted any Nazi-looted art. So it's a real opportunity for Switzerland to set up a model for provenance research and draw up a template for fair and just solutions. There is no process for making claims in Switzerland, so it could lead the way in provenance research and ensure that looted works of art are returned expeditiously and with a clear and transparent claims procedure.

Nazi-looted art was usually hidden or sold abroad

Is there any hope in sight for progress in Germany? What about the new German Center for Cultural Losses, which is to be established at the beginning of next year?

We very much hope that the new German Center for Cultural Losses will completely change the manner in which Germany has dealt with Nazi-looted art. It's to be hoped that this new center will review the way that Germany has operated until now and move forward in a very positive, proactive, energetic, transparent and accountable way.

Without transparency and accountability, people outside Germany can have very little confidence in the German commitment to art restitution. And the way that the task force has operated - without transparency - has underlined the reasons for that lack of confidence, which has grown even greater in the last year. Nobody even knows who the actual people are who are doing the task force's provenance research.

There were commitments to provide a claims procedure, to create a new law, neither of which have happened. So the new center is a great opportunity for Germany to transform perceptions and, most importantly, the reality, and ensure that goals are set, research is published and art is proactively returned from the collections still holding it today. It is the only way that the moral taint that hangs over Germany's art collections will disappear.

Anne Webber is the co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), a non-profit organization that identifies and recovers Nazi-looted art on behalf of families, institutions and governments worldwide.
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