For decades, art in private collections was restricted from being researched—only public collections, such as those of museums and libraries, could be investigated. But new generations of collectors who have inherited art want any works that were purchased or taken under unscrupulous circumstances returned to the heirs of their rightful owners. “I don’t want stolen goods hanging on the wall—it’s quite simple,” said Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who hired a provenance expert more than a dozen years ago to look into the art he inherited from his father, tobacco businessman Philipp F. Reemtsma.
Uwe Hartmann, the head of provenance research at the German Lost Art Foundation, said he’s seen an increase in concern over inherited artworks from private collectors. He states that inquiries into twelve collections have already started or are in the process of being finished. He sometimes receives artworks in the mail from collectors who assume the work was illegally obtained. He can do nothing with them but send them back and post pictures of the pieces on lostart.de, a website that carries images of works of uncertain provenance.
The family that owns Dr. Oetker, a German baking company, hired a researcher to scrutinize their collection of two hundred works several years ago. It was discovered that four artworks were stolen by Nazis. A portrait by Anthony van Dyck was repatriated to the sole heir of Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch art dealer who escaped Germany in 1940. Another painting from the family’s collection, by Hans Thoma, was returned to the heirs of Jewish collector Hedwig Ullmann.