Museums have returned more than 1,000 objects looted by the Nazis in 63 restitution cases since 1998, Hartmann said. His agency, brought to life by Culture Minister Bernd Neumann, has an annual budget of 1 million euros ($1.56 million) to help museums trace the prewar owners of art that may have been looted.
``I expect the pace of restitution to be at least the same in the next 10 years,'' Hartmann said in an interview at his office in Berlin's Pergamon Museum. ``It won't slow down. Whether it will speed up is difficult to tell at this point.''
During Adolf Hitler's 12-year rule, about 650,000 works were plundered in the biggest art heist ever, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. Hitler appointed a commission to hunt down old masters for a planned museum in his home town of Linz, while Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering scoured Europe to expand the private collection he kept at his country estate near Berlin.
In the five years after the war, looted art was collected by the allies and returned to the country of origin, where it often ended up in museums. Though the West German government made some compensation payments to original owners in the decades after the war, many claims remained unsolved in divided, Cold War Europe.
New impetus came in 1998, when 44 countries signed the non- binding Washington Principles, agreeing to identify stolen art, open up archives, publicize suspicious cases, establish a central registry of looted art and ``achieve a just and fair solution'' for the prewar owners or their heirs.
Germany's federal funding system for culture and a lack of resources for provenance research by the museums hampered the country's ability to live up to its international commitments, Hartmann said. Minister Neumann initiated the creation of Hartmann's new agency in November 2007, after the high-profile restitution of a painting from Berlin's Bruecke Museum by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner revealed the deficiencies in German museums.
``There are 12 or 15 museums which have worked relatively systematically to clear up prewar ownership over the past five years,'' Hartmann said. ``The vast majority have not done any provenance research. Most of them are only willing to do the research when there is a claim -- they won't work methodically through their collections.''
With the founding of the new agency on July 7, the museums' complaint that they don't have the money to investigate the prewar ownership of their works ``is no longer valid,'' Hartmann said.
Any of Germany's 3,400 public museums can come to him for a financial subsidy of as much as 15,000 euros that he can provide within a month when they receive a claim and need to investigate a specific work. Yet the bulk of his agency's work, Hartmann anticipates, will be improving coordination of research and making the results more widely available to all museums.
To contact the writer on this story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.