Hunting down the Nazis' looted art

1945 3 August 2004
Chad Thomas

Germany might have pledged to search out artworks taken by the Nazis and to return them to their owners, but bureaucratic red tape has ensnared efforts to track down Holocaust art. Chad Thomas reports on the search.

Five years after Germany vowed to track down and return cultural artefacts seized from Jews by the Nazis, very few works are actually back in the hands of their rightful owners.

What is more, the overwhelming majority of German museums have not done the research necessary to determine whether their collections contain looted art.

The German federal government, states and local communities issued a joint declaration in 1999 calling on the country's museums to search their collections and report provenance gaps for the period of 1933-1945.

But the government agency responsible for assisting museums with this research told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) that most have not done this.

Michael Franz, head of the Coordination Office for Lost Art, said only about 165 of Germanys 6,000 museums have reported to him since the declaration, with most indicating they found no suspicious artwork in their collections.

"From my point of view, it's a beginning that we will be working on for the next several years," Franz said.

For the last four years the coordination office, located in the eastern German city of Magdeburg, has posted the findings it has received, along with descriptions of items people are trying to locate, on an Internet database.

The site,, has a listing of 70,000 missing cultural objects seized in Germany by the Nazis or the Soviet military.

Of those postings, more than 2,000 are items sought by individuals who lost their possessions to the Nazis. Most claimants are Jewish.

To date, Franz said he knew of about 10 restitutions as a result of the database. Wolfgang Mauraus, the head of restitution in the German Culture Ministry, said he is aware of roughly 20 returns in the entire country in recent years.

There is no requirement to report art restitutions, and some claims are solved privately, but the small number of known returns indicates just how difficult the task can be.

Thus far, we haven't succeeded in this matter," acknowledged Mauraus.

The federal government has a very clear policy of returning any piece of art looted by the Nazis, but it runs just 17 of the country's museums.

While art experts believe a handful of German museums may knowingly try to avoid returning stolen works, the overwhelming majority simply do not have the staff to handle time-consuming, labour-intensive provenance research.

In the meantime, nearly 60 years after the war, the survivors with firsthand knowledge are passing away.

We are racing against the clock," said Monica Dugot, deputy director of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office, which is funded by the state of New York to help Holocaust survivors and their families claim lost assets.

Those who do launch a search for looted family treasures often find it difficult to provide the hard-and-fast documentation necessary to rightfully claim a lost cultural artefact.

A general description, or even a title, usually does not suffice for a claim. Artists tend to create works that are very similar, and over the years the names on the artwork can change.

What is necessary is paper documentation showing ownership, or a photo, that researchers can use in their search.

Even then, however, it is by no means a sure thing. In order to locate the missing artwork, there has to be documentation on the current ownership available to the public.

When the art is in a private collection or a regional museum, that is most often not the case.
Despite all the difficulties, those working to track down looted art press on, hoping to right what they see as a wrong.

We owe a duty to everyone to pursue these cases," Dugot said. You have a lot of survivors who are just trying to achieve closure."
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