Stolen art links Holocaust survivors to their past – it's not about the money

The Guardian 5 November 2013
By David Lewis

The Munich hoard of art looted by the Nazis raises questions about why so little been done to return stolen goods

War loot is an ancient rite. It was seemingly an accepted fact of life – spoils to the victor. But when the spoils remain in the hands of the vanquished and were part of a vicious targeted genocide of an entire people, it takes on an entirely different dimension.

It is 68 years since the Nazis were defeated but only a little more than 20 years since the issue of war loot, and looted art in particular, became seriously addressed following the break up of the Soviet Union.

The discovery in Munich of a hoard of 1,500 looted art works has itself taken a year and a half to come to light. Possibly the German authorities are embarrassed by such potent reminders of the actions of their predecessors.

Germany and its allies and collaborators amassed many thousands of objects of art by forced sale or confiscation. At the end of the war many were identified and, where possible, returned. But many were not.

In 1998, a conference was held in Washington where all the major western countries signed a protocol to investigate all objects in public hands whose provenance post-1933 was either dubious or absent, and to restitute to descendants where possible. Loot in private hands of course required different criteria depending on the possibility of purchases in good faith and the actual history of ownership.

Loot emerged not only in Germany and Austria but elsewhere, including the Netherlands, France and Britain well as in Russia where much is claimed as justified war loot from the Germans. Some countries and their public institutions engaged strongly with the Washington protocols. Others spoke loudly of their intentions, but at local levels, a lack of funding or staff was blamed for minimal efforts to identify problematic objects. Others effectively did nothing.

The appalling events of the Nazi era are still within living memory. Why has so little been done in so many countries to partially right these wrongs through restitution of looted objects? Is not the very enjoyment of stolen or looted objects obscene? Earlier this year, looted works of art were even found in German government offices.

The German museum and art community has largely failed to address these issues in sharp contrast to how the German government has addressed so many other legacies of the Nazi era. Maybe it is all too tangible. As stated when refusing to publish the Munich list online "we do not want a situation where there are ten claims for one painting".

It is at least possible that Bavaria in general and Munich in particular feel especially compromised when Nazi loot is found. But even within a federal system, the German government has a clear moral and ethical duty to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done.

For survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants any link with their broken past is precious. It is not a financial issue. Some objects will rise and others will fall over three generations. The overwhelming majority of restituted items are of little monetary value – they are a reminder of lost continuity, a family unit destroyed, the contents of a home brutally dismantled.

That is why descendants of the victims of the Nazi era care about restitution. Books with names written on the flyleaf. Candlesticks on the mantelpiece. Prints or paintings on lost walls. A link with a faded photo or an even more faded memory. A story repeated from those no longer able to tell.

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe is a non profit making body which assists claimants seeking restitution of objects forcibly sold or looted from their families. Many such objects will sadly have no claimants.

Where objects can be identified it is the duty of each government and public body to face the issue and take immediate steps to publicise fully and to co-operate with those who seek some justice for crimes that cannot be adequately punished and thereby to bring some restoration to otherwise broken lives.
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