Returning Looted Art a 'Herculean Task'

Handelsblatt 2 December 2015
By Nicola Kuhn

At the German Lost Art Foundation's first convention, experts said more must be done to expedite the restitution of looted art.

Hildebrand Gurlitt. It’s a name that has dominated the German art world since the 2012 discovery of the Nazi art dealer’s trove of works in Munich.

And though it was heard only occasionally at the German Lost Art Foundation’s convention over the weekend, it hovered like a specter over the event. That’s because efforts to address the issue of the artworks’ provenance have been sluggish at best.

The foundation was set up a year ago by Monika Grütters, Germany’s minister of culture, as a joint institution of the federal and state governments. Its first conference, at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was arranged so that experts could voice their expectations for the new institution.

The Gurlitt affair served as the backdrop for the presentations. Some observers say it’s unacceptable that, after two years of investigations and much political intervention, only four of several hundred artworks suspected of having been looted have been definitively identified.

Only a few days before, the head of a task force, Ingrid Berggreen-Merkel, admitted in the Bavarian state parliament how “naively” she had approached the project, which was actually supposed to have been completed by the end of this year.

German Lost Art Foundation manager Uwe Schneede promised at the outset of the conference that lessons have been learned from the mistakes of the past. Further research into the provenance of the Gurlitt collection will be his responsibility. Mr. Schneede announced that the work will be “compact, efficient, transparent.” Moreover, he made it clear that decisions about where the art should end up will be made by other parties – museums and the heirs engaged in disputes with them.

This raises questions: How large or small can a gap in provenance be to ensure restitution? Where is the border between law and morality, when only a soft law applies, the so-called Washington Principles, according to which a “fair” agreement is to be reached among the disputing parties?

Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told Mr. Schneede that he was faced with a “Herculean task” and added: “The world is watching you. Your foundation is important for all of us, because it stands for the quality of provenance research in Germany.”

Other speakers described the depth of the task. Via video message, Rüdiger Mahlo of the Claims Conference in Germany recalled the auctions during the Third Reich in which the neighbors of persecuted victims purchased the victims’ household furnishings at bargain prices. Up to now, said Mr. Mahlo, Jewish people with large collections have been the principal object of provenance research, but what about the many other victims of robbery? Moreover, he called for haste because of the advancing age of the heirs. The brother of David Toren, to whom a Liebermann painting from the Gurlitt collection was returned, did not live to experience the restitution, for example.

Here, however, Mr. Schneede urged caution: “Research can’t be accelerated like an automobile.”

The case of the Nazi art dealer offers another lesson, too. Namely, how important independent art dealers and auction houses are for following the trail of looted art. The foundation is engaged in discussions with gallery owners and auctioneers about opening up their books, because the art trade continues to protect their clients.

Another entirely different chapter of German history was also brought up by Berlin lawyer Ulf Bischof. He spoke about how to handle the art that was taken from collectors by the authorities of East Germany and sold to the West.

“In the future, it must be made uncomfortable to purchase these things,” he said.

In a way, Mr. Bischof echoed the introductory lecture of the conference by Herfried Münkler, who described an arc from the past all the way to the current raids and rampages of the Islamic State (IS) in the Mideast: Blood drips from the artworks sold by IS, yet a market still exists for the looted archaeological objects.

Mr. Bischof described the experiences one of his clients who wrestled for 10 years with Erfurt’s Anger Museum about the restitution of his father’s collection. Only in the courts did the heir prevail – and in the end, he received only the pieces that he personally remembered from his childhood.

Gilbert Lupfer, the director of research at the State Art Collections in Dresden, issued a plea that investigations not be limited to the search for looted Nazi art and that an end be put to the “niche in the East.” He described “palace rescues” under the Russian military administration during which thousands of palaces and estates were expropriated. Their inventory was swallowed up by museums where the loot often remains today. Art dealers and collectors were branded as criminals in East Germany in order to seize their possessions. Only now are the documents of the former communist state’s Commercial Coordination of State Foreign Trade available to researchers.

Meanwhile, museum officials have been active in storing and profiting from looted art – though sometimes with a happy ending, as was the case for the descendants of one collector whose possessions were looted. The director of the Dresden Porcelain Collection had seen to it that a pitcher made in Meissen ended up not in the West, but in her collection. Of the 5,000 possessions looted during the East German era, this is the only object that could be restored to heirs. Mr. Lupfer believes that just as with the persecuted Jewish collectors of the Nazi era, the collectors victimized by East Germany should have their dignity restored to them.

The tasks that lie ahead for the German Lost Art Foundation are overwhelming. Further fields for investigation include objects from the German colonial era, looted archaeological finds, zoological collections and private collections, Mr. Schneede said.

And educating the public on these issues is key, he said. It’s an outrage that the Berlin research center for Degenerate Art is soon to be closed down, he said. The reason for this? Berlin’s Free University is unwilling to accede to a demand by the federal government that it guarantee the continued existence of the center for the next three years.

“It is beyond imagination what effect the closure would have abroad,” Mr. Schneede said.


This article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:
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