It may fall to a German archeologist, not an art historian, to revive the restitution of Nazi-looted art, which - despite some stunning recoveries - has not lived up to pledges made a decade ago, when 44 nations convened at the US State Department to talk about Holocaust-era assets.
Those nations left the December 1998 Washington conference with a list of moral principles intended to locate and return plundered artworks to their pre-war Jewish owners. Preparing for the Washington conference, Stuart Eizenstat, then US undersecretary of state, said, "It is dispiriting that for nearly half a century, the fate of Holocaust-era assets remained largely obscured." That could be amended to say that it is dispiriting that for half a century, plus a decade, the fate of many Holocaust-era artworks remains undocumented.
Earlier this month, Hermann Parzinger officiated as Germany commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Washington conference.
PARZINGER IS the new president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (or Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, SPK). The SPK convened museum officials, lawyers and historians from Europe and Israel for a symposium entitled "Nazi-Looted Art - A Challenge for Libraries, Archives and Museums." Given the grand restitution-related pledges in Washington, it is easy to grouse about how little has been accomplished by most nations since 1998. The Germans acknowledge they are woefully behind in researching the origins and pre-war ownership of artworks in their collections. They are far behind the Dutch, and yet they are far ahead of the Israelis, who also committed to examine the provenance of works in museums.
This is all new to Parzinger, who became president of the SPK last March after a term as head of the German Archeological Institute. He is celebrated as an intellectual, a linguist and the man who discovered the tomb of a Scythian warrior from the 7th century BCE; a recent German TV broadcast called him the "treasure hunter." That was a reference to archeology, not looted art.
A MAN of many talents, Parzinger now presides over what is said to be the largest cultural institution in Europe, with 17 museums, libraries and research centers. As president of the SPK, Parzinger has striking independence and authority, which he will need to exercise if he is to put Germany back on the restitution track.
He got off to a fairly good start. At the conference, Parzinger went beyond the traditional statements about the restitution of Nazi-looted assets, and tackled some important, but often neglected, points.
Germany made post-war compensation payments for property losses when victims could not locate their artworks, books or archives, and had no opportunities to track them down, he said. That much is history. What was new was his very public statement that victims retained their right to restitution.
"Should such works reappear today, where the provenance can be verified, it is our view that a compensation payment, which usually was minimal, cannot be the reason to deny their restitution," Parzinger told the conference. (He noted, too, that any prior compensation would have to be repaid in these cases.) This is a matter that has haunted some claims. The receipt of payments in the 1950s and 1960s has been used against claimants who are told that because Germany paid compensation, this amounts to a sale of the art and extinguishes the victims' claims to restitution.
With one brief statement, Parzinger has put museums, the art trade and collectors around the world on notice that Nazi victims did not waive their rights to the return of their artworks, and that German compensation was not a transfer of title to the property.
THERE IS more that he can do. The onus of finding and documenting the history of artworks has rested primarily on Nazi victims and their heirs. Parzinger can ease that burden by using his influence to make data in German compensation records easily accessible to museums and the art trade.
This "Wiedergutmachung" data is not a record of all looting, but an inventory of successful compensation claims for Nazi-era losses.
Although incomplete, because not all losses were covered by the German restitution laws, these records would dramatically accelerate provenance research worldwide if they also were organized as a database that could be searched by the names of artists and artworks, in addition to searches by claimants' names.
Museums are expected to research their collections and make public the information about works with dubious war-era provenance. As obvious and essential a task as it is, it starts from a premise that something may have been plundered and, if so, someone should come forward with proof of ownership.
IF THE German government is serious about finding owners and heirs, it would be more effective - and less expensive - to start from the opposite direction and identify works that were proven to have been plundered. A public list of compensation payments according to artists' names would protect the privacy of individual recipients while alerting museums and auction houses to artworks with problematic histories.
The official 10th anniversary of the Washington conference, with diplomatic delegations expected from dozens of countries, will be in Prague next June. If the Berlin conference was any indication, nations do not have much progress to report; instead they tend to be wary, if not outright critical, of the expense and endlessness of provenance research, and they reject any outside advice or interference regarding how they resolve claims.
Germany can begin to change that by quickly providing a list of the art for which it paid compensation. Shorn of excuses for delay, it would then fall to each national delegation in Prague to identify how many of those paintings are within its borders, and what they intend to do about them.