'There's No Point in Trying to Duck'

Spiegel 3 December 2009

It is exactly 10 years to the day since 44 countries signed the "Washington Declaration" committing them to search for and return Nazi-looted art. Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann spoke to SPIEGEL about Berlin's efforts so far.

On Dec. 3, 1998, representatives from 44 countries, including Germany, signed the "Washington Declaration," an agreement that committed signatories to make efforts to identify and return cultural assets stolen during the Nazi era. Germany is hosting a new conference to assess the progress made so far. Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann sat down with SPIEGEL to discuss how the search is going 10 years on.


A painting at the "Looting and Restitution" exhibition at Berlin's Jewish Museum.
Getty Images

A painting at the "Looting and Restitution" exhibition at Berlin's Jewish Museum.

SPIEGEL: Will the conference, which you have scheduled on the 10th anniversary of the "Washington Declaration," turn into a crisis summit?  

Bernd Neumann: No, but I am not satisfied with the current sate of restitution of cultural assets. Some libraries and museums -- like the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation -- are searching intensively for pieces stolen during the Nazi era. Many others are not.

SPIEGEL: Why are those in charge so hesitant?

Neumann: Investigating the provenance and ownership of artworks is labor-intensive and costly. This poses a problem for small museums. As for the others, some of those in charge are behaving very defensively out of worry for their collections.

SPIEGEL: Museum directors are anxious about valuable pieces in their collections. Is that understandable?

Neumann: It's understandable that they would like to keep their collections as complete as possible. They've restored their pieces and cared for them over the decades. They want to have something to offer the public. But their behavior stands in contradiction to the moral responsibility that we have, which is without doubt more important. 

Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann.

Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann.

SPIEGEL: Some museum people think there needs to be a deadline for restitution requests.  

Neumann: The government's position is clear: there will be no deadline. In order to strengthen our commitment, we have set up a facility to conduct provenance research in Berlin with €1 million annual budget to help support museums and libraries.

SPIEGEL: But because of a dearth of applications from museums and libraries, only half of the funds have been allocated.

Neumann: I assume that this has to do with start-up difficulties and that in the next round of allocations there will be more applications. If not, then we will once again have to appeal to the states and communities responsible for the museums. There is no alternative to a precise inspection of inventories. There's no point in trying to duck. It is neither wise nor justifiable to simply wait and hope that no one will find any stolen Nazi goods in the storerooms.,1518,594232,00.html
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