Vienna Museum Director calls for time limitation on Nazi loot claims

Kwame Opoku 31 March 2015
By Kwame Opoku

We are gradually beginning to think that there is something special about restitution which makes it very difficult for some, especially museum directors, to accept that there are crimes, including the looting of cultural objects that should never be barred by a statute of limitation.

We thought we had dealt adequately with the grounds why such heinous crimes as the Nazis committed against individuals and their property, including artworks, should under no circumstances, be forgiven or forgotten and that restitution or adequate compensation accepted by the victims of such crimes or their successors appears to be the only solution. We thought we had dealt with this as Sir Norman Rosenthal made a suggestion to set a time limit to such claim

Similar ideas were also subsequently proposed by Jonathan Jones who in the meanwhile has seen the light of the day, recanted and is even calling for the restitution of all artworks looted in the British colonial period as well as the Parthenon Marbles

Now we have the Director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, calling for a time limit on all Nazi-loot restitution claims on art works in public collections. The Art Newspaper reported as follows:

 “The international community should decide on a sensible time frame of 20 or 30 years from now,” says Klaus Albrecht Schröder. “If we don’t set a time limit of around 100 years after the end of the Second World War, then we should ask ourselves why claims regarding crimes committed during the First World War should not still be valid; why we don't argue anymore about the consequences of the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war, and why we don't claim restitution of works of art that have been stolen during previous wars?”

Schroeder believes that Nazi-looted art claims in public collections have been well treated by museums in countries such as Austria that signed the Washington Principles, adopted in December 1998.

According to the museum director, Austria has done well in returning some 50,000 artworks and objects looted by the Nazis and were held in public collections. Schroeder thinks it is now necessary to set a time limit:

“Until now we have done the right thing in Austria by disregarding statutes of limitations on art looted during the Second World War. Nevertheless, without ever forgetting the ferocious crimes of the war, I think we must come to the point in which history is accepted as history and it can be laid to rest.”

I do not know what conception of history Schroeder has but the remark “I think we must come to the point in which history is accepted as history and it can be laid to rest,” frightens me a lot. How can anybody, aware of the recent history of Austria and other European countries make such a statement? Many of us believe that history in such matters as the Nazi loot is not to be laid to rest. On the contrary, given the ignorance and lack of interest by many persons in this decisive period of European history, efforts should be doubled to teach the youth and others about the horrible and evil acts of that period and lessons learnt about how to prevent re-occurrence. What did previous generations mean when they shouted Nie Wieder! (Never Again)?

According to Schroeder, prices paid by museums to keep works now recognized as Nazi looted are higher than could be realized on the free market. He gives as an example, the case of Egon Schiele’s 1912 Portrait of Wally, which the Leopold Museum in Vienna paid $19m to keep. With all due respect to the museum director, if prices of Nazi looted artworks have gone up that cannot be put at the door of victims of Nazi loot nor would that justify setting time limits to such claims. The museums could themselves take part of the blame for high prices in so as they are not obliged to pay prices they consider exorbitant. Moreover, the delay of decades in settling claims has undoubtedly contributed to higher prices but this is surely not the fault of claimants. In view of the circumstances surrounding Nazi loot and the costs to the victims - loss of life, exile and general deprivation of property and loss of jobs - do we dare to raise the issue of price?

The example of Schiele’s Portrait of Wally which Dr Schroeder gives is rather unfortunate for this case, in my opinion, clearly provides reasons why there should be no time limit. The delaying tactics that were employed to keep this painting in Austria were impressive. It required the intervention of American courts to oblige the museum to enter into negotiations with the claimant for settlement by agreement.

It is commendable that Austria has taken necessary steps in returning many of the Nazi-looted artworks. But how many more of the looted artworks remain to be returned? And how long have the restitution cases taken? My reading of the materials available indicates that there is still a lot to be done and instead of talking about limitations of time, one should consider how the remaining cases can be speeded up. Perhaps more staff and funds could be provided for provenance research. Long after the end of the Nazi regime we are still dealing with such problems and some say it is time to stop. But have we finished the task of securing justice for the victims of Nazism and their successors?

So long as there are looted objects that have not been returned, so long should restitution claims continue.

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