By Ulrike Knöfel
For years, it has been widely accepted that artworks looted by the Nazis should be returned to their rightful owners. But now a prominent British expert has called for a stop to restitution -- and triggered protests in the art world.
The art connoisseur Sir Norman Rosenthal may be a British institution, but the equanimity often attributed to his compatriots is not one of his distinguishing features.
Rosenthal, 64, was the leading curator at London's Royal Academy for more than 30 years. Considered the public face of the institution, he was knighted for his achievements. His vibrant passion for art is legendary. He helped make British artist Damien Hirst and his peers famous when he staged the exhibition "Sensation" at the Royal Academy. Last year, he left the museum where he had caused many a stir -- and shocked the British and others yet again.
Rosenthal, the son of Jewish refugees from Germany and Slovakia, called for an end to the restitution of so-called Nazi looted art in an article in the journal The Art Newspaper.
The fact that someone who lost members of his own family in the Holocaust is now opposing restitution and is calling for an end to the practice has injected a provocatively dissonant note into an already angry debate -- and has triggered fierce protest. At issue is nothing less than the permanent whereabouts of some of the icons of art history.
Restitution is a term that has been constantly bandied about in the art world for at least the last 10 years. It's a question of morality and the righting of indisputable wrongs. But it has also become -- at least in Rosenthal's opinion -- a question of big business.
It is clear that new restitutions will introduce even more turmoil into the museum world and shrink the inventories of notable collections. The controversy involves important artists such as Rembrandt, the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele and even Pablo Picasso. Two of the Spanish painter's works with somewhat murky histories are in New York, one at the Guggenheim Museum and the other at the Museum of Modern Art. The heirs of the banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy recently reached an out-of-court settlement with the two museums.
The E.G. Bührle Collection in Zurich still owns "La Sultane," a painting by Edouard Manet that is controversial because of its history as looted art. Max Silberberg, an industrialist from Breslau (now the Polish city of Wroclaw), was forced to sell the painting in 1937. Silberberg and his wife were deported to Auschwitz five years later.
The principle of restitution seemed undisputed until recently. Who would challenge the legitimacy of the claims of the heirs of Nazi victims to their family property? In those cases in which museums have balked at returning looted art, they have argued that they acquired the works in question legally and in good faith. But does this argument truly release them from the obligation to give back the art?
Each case underscores the unscrupulousness of the Nazis, whose special teams systematically stole works of art from their Jewish owners from Paris to Prague. And each case is linked to the tragedy of persecution, and almost always to murder.
After the war, the Western Allies initially tried to shed light on the biggest art heist in history. But a process of repressing the history behind the stolen art soon began, clearing the way for art dealers to sell many works to private collectors and museums around the world. Few questions were asked when it came to determining who had owned the works before 1945. Claims were ignored and inquiries were hampered.
It was not until a 1998 conference in Washington that 44 countries committed themselves to finding "fair solutions." Under the Washington agreement, statutes of limitations were lifted, at least for art in public hands. But the treaty was not legally binding.
Austria, at any rate, enacted its own law and, after 1998, returned about 13,000 works to their rightful owners. But since 2006, when Jewish art collector Ronald Lauder paid $135 million (€102 million) for Gustav Klimt's famous portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," which had already been returned to its owners by a museum in Vienna, the public's fascination with such record sums and the glitz of large amounts of money have overshadowed any gestures of fairness.
It was also Lauder who, in late 2006, bought Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene" at auction for $38 million (€29 million). Before that, Berlin's Brücke Museum had restituted the Expressionist masterpiece to the granddaughter of collector Alfred Hess, in a move that was everything but voluntary.
Anita Halpin, the Hess heir, is still stubbornly fighting for other paintings. A few months ago, she was awarded a painting by Franz Marc titled "Cat Behind a Tree." Owned by a bank, the work was on loan to the Sprengel Museum in the northern German city of Hannover.
Art historian Uwe Hartmann estimates that there are more than 10,000 works that require investigation in German museums alone. Hartmann heads a new office to investigate the provenance of works of art, which the government established to assist museums. Commenting on the halting history of restitution, he says: "After the 1998 Washington declaration, they said: Now we're going to get started. Ten years later, they were still saying: Now we're really going to get started."
Is there more activity today? In the Netherlands, 400 museums were recently ordered to examine their collections. In Great Britain, an amendment to a law is being considered that would make restitution easier. These efforts represent an overdue moral victory.
But there are also counter-examples, especially in Germany. Museums from Duisburg to Munich insist on their supposed right to keep their Emil Noldes and Paul Klees, despite convincing evidence that the works were looted. The mayor of a southern German town refuses to hand over a painting by the 19th-century German painter Franz von Lenbach, arguing that there is no law forcing him to relinquish the work. According to Monika Tatzkow, an expert on looted art, the mayor says that the former owner, Walter Westfeld, just happened to "go missing in a concentration camp."
A district court in Berlin recently issued a momentous ruling, in which it ordered the German Historic Museum to restitute a collection of posters once owned by the Jewish dentist Hans Sachs, which was seized by the Gestapo in 1938, to his son Peter. Peter Sachs chose to take the unusual route through the civil courts, which could prove to be the more promising approach in the future.
Ironically, the German government filed an appeal against the Berlin court's decision. The Limbach Commission, founded a few years ago and named after Jutta Limbach, the former president of the German Constitutional Court, had previously ruled against Peter Sachs. It is conspicuous that this commission has rarely been involved in disputes over looted art in the past. Both parties to a dispute must appeal, and the museums usually refuse.
In which direction is the mood turning, forward or backward? The latter would be detrimental to the victims' heirs.
The best-known opponent of restitution in Germany is Bernd Schultz, 67, the director of the Berlin auction house Villa Grisebach. In a speech at the Chancellery two years ago, Schultz accused the heirs of having a purely financial interest in looted art: "They say Holocaust, but they mean money." He has never retracted the statement.
Rosenthal is also defiant, and he too wants to put an end to restitutions, but his reasoning comes from a different direction. His motives include the desire for reconciliation, rather than a wish to downplay the issue.
After ending his stellar career at the Royal Academy, Rosenthal is now active in the art world from Abu Dhabi to Philadelphia. He does not believe that restitution is an effective way to overcome the past. After his article appeared in The Art Newspaper, which earned him the hostility of leading members of the art world, including Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Museums, he stopped commenting on the issue -- until a new interview with SPIEGEL, in which he says: "We can no longer wipe history clean."
Rosenthal and his Spanish wife, who works at the Prado in Madrid, have two daughters. Every generation, says Rosenthal, must reinvent itself. The claim to Nazi-looted art, he says, should expire with the death of the last surviving owners.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan