Sweden's Image Tarnished by Failure to Return Nazi-Looted Painting

MMDN 11 June 2008

Almost a year after the Moderna Museet, a modern art museum in Stockholm, announced that it was returning the Emil Nolde “Blumengarten (Utenwarf)” to the heirs of Otto Nathan Deutsch, the Jewish owner from whom the painting  was looted by the Nazis in the 1940s, the museum has failed to return the painting despite an international outcry and a brewing  controversy in Sweden.

The players involve the museum’s director Lars Nittve, who has rejected returning the stolen painting, and the museum’s attorney Jan Widlund, who also serves on the museum’s board of directors. Both Nittve and Widlund have opposed returning the Nolde painting from the time the heirs first contacted the museum to the present. Now, their failure to return the stolen painting has raised a controversy in Sweden regarding Sweden’s historical role in WWII and how it is perceived in dealing with Holocaust issues.

Following Nittve and Widlund’s refusal to return the Nolde painting in 2006 and then again in 2007, the Swedish government ordered them to settle the claim for the return of the painting under the principles of the Washington Conference. Following that  directive the Moderna Museet announced on June 20, 2007 that the  Nolde painting would be returned to the heirs of Otto Nathan Deutsch who lost the painting after fleeing Germany in the late 1930's. However, Nittve and Widlund soon backtracked, refusing to meet with the heirs and their representatives to arrange for the return of the painting and raising new obstacles to the restitution  of the painting by demanding a 50% ransom or long term loan to the Moderna Museet.

Sweden’s news agencies have now picked up on the controversy and have noted that the museum’s tactics are akin to extortion. They have also now started to criticize the Swedish government which has  failed to give the museum a clear directive to return the painting and has failed to pass legislation which would require its public museums to return Nazi looted art to Holocaust victims.

Asked to comment on the matter, David Rowland, attorney for the Deutsch heirs put the blame squarely on Minister Liljeroth the Cultural Minister of Sweden. “Minister Liljeroth has been  insensitive to Sweden’s obligations as a signatory of the Washington Conference to return Nazi looted art to Jewish Holocaust victims. We have contacted her on several occasions and she has refused to meet with the Deutsch heirs and to give the Moderna Museet a clear directive to return the painting. Instead the Swedish Cultural Ministry hides behind its directive to the Moderna Museet to resolve the claim, knowing full well that the museum will do everything in its power not to return the painting. The directive of the Swedish government to the Moderna Museet to resolve the claim is nothing more than a sham, because the Swedish Government knows that the Moderna Museet is opposed to the restitution of the stolen Nolde painting.”

Sweden’s role as a forward looking western country has now been put into question. In 2000 it hosted a conference on Holocaust issues, but its present government has now turned in another direction. Deeds always speak louder than words and in fact Sweden’s failure to live up to  its commitments poses serious questions regarding its status as a progressive western country.  

In defending their refusal to return the stolen Nolde painting both Nittve and Widlund have now started to attack the Deutsch heirs attorneys claiming that they charge excessive fees. In fact neither Nittve nor Widlund have any information regarding the private fee arrangement between the Deutsch heirs and their attorneys but have  used this latest argument to try to gain sympathy for their refusal to return the Nazi looted Nolde painting.

Commenting on this, attorney Rowland noted that “It is sad that Sweden’s only argument for not returning the Nolde painting is that the Deutsch heirs were forced to hire attorneys after the Moderna Museet refused to return the stolen Nolde painting. If that is the best argument they can come up with, then we must be doing a good job. It is also sad that Mr. Nittve and Mr. Widlund have resorted to making false statements to the press regarding the attorney fees in this matter. We have asked them for a retraction.
What attorneys are compensated for working on these cases has nothing to do with the substance of the case.”

Sweden’s failure to return the Blumengarten painting is an exception to the international norm that Nazi looted art in public museums should be returned without conditions to its rightful owners. Museums in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria and Canada have returned Nazi looted art under similar circumstances. The Swedish government participated in the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Looted Assets but so far has not implemented its provisions into its domestic laws.

Asked to comment on the case, Stuart Eizenstat, an initiator of the Washington Conference, is reported to have told the Swedish press that the Washington Conference principles, in such a clear case of Nazi looting as in the Deutsch case, call for the return of the artwork without conditions. One year after the return of the painting was announced, the Deutsch heirs are still waiting for justice.
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