The term "looted art" is interpreted differently by the German public and by observers abroad, said Ulrike Schmiegelt. The art historian from the German States' Cultural Institution specializes in art stolen from Russian museums during World War II.
"When Germans talk about looted art, they mean artwork stolen from Germany that may today be in Russia, for instance," Schmiegelt said. In general, the term looted art applies to works the Nazi regime confiscated and stole in Germany and in Western Europe.
It's not as widely known that the Nazi occupiers also systematically stole art in Eastern Europe, Schmiegelt added. For the most part, it's the artwork that is stolen in Western Europe that grabs the headlines.
"A painting by Picasso or Matisse is more widely known than a church in Russia," Schmiegelt said, adding that the high sums these paintings fetch at auctions as well as the decades of research that have been conducted in the field.
Poland wants details
While former eastern bloc states are familiar with that reasoning, Poland is currently taking a closer look at looted art. The Polish Foreign Ministry filed an application to the prosecutor's office in Augsburg for a complete list of the artworks discovered in collector Cornelius Gurlitt's apartment in Munich. The press conference announcing the Gurlitt collection gave Polish authorities the impression that "some of the paintings may be from Poland," according to Wojciech Kowalski, a lawyer responsible for looted art at Poland's Foreign Ministry.
Looting and destruction were widespread in Poland during World War II. "In 1939, shortly after the German invasion, decrees appeared outlining the duty to report artworks created before 1850 - in public as well as private collections," Kowalski said, referring to German documents issued in occupied Poland in late 1939. People who tried to keep such information secret or gave false or incomplete information risked being sent to prison. According to Polish estimates after the war, half a million works of art had been stolen from the country.
Today, the government in Warsaw keeps a list of about 60,000 works of stolen art. Headlines in Polish newspapers after the discovery of Cornelius Gurlitt's collection didn't mince words: "Give back our paintings!" they read; as well as "Are the Germans hiding something?"
Where does the art belong?
The case of Poland is the "most complicated of all," according to art historian Schmiegelt. "Not only art was stolen there, but borders were redrawn."
Should Cornelius Gurlitt own works of art that originate from the former German areas of what today is Poland, the issue will get particularly complicated, said Klaus Ziemer of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw (DHIW).
In 1937, many paintings from museums in Szczecin, Bytom and Wroclaw were loaned out to the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. After the Allies' decision to move Poland's boundary westwards, the country not only acquired Lower Silesia after the war, but also its cultural heritage. The Polish Culture Ministry thus refers to paintings "from Polish territory," while the German side could argue that works "loaned to Munich from museums in Wroclaw and Szczecin before 1945 should stay in Germany," Ziemer said.
Experts might have to settle whether these are cases of looted art at all, the art historian argued, "A painting that used to hang in Szczecin is now shown in Greifswald, and nobody seems to take offense."
Show and tell
It could be years before everything is settled, Robert Traba said, adding he is convinced there are more collections like Gurlitt's.
The Polish historian from the Berlin-based Center for Historic Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences said it is of the utmost importance not to hide the art, but to show it. "Why not exhibit the artworks and label each one accordingly: who stole it, when and where exactly."
So far, this idea has largely been ignored.
As negotiations between Germany and former eastern bloc states continue, claims are being made by both sides. The valuable Berlinka collection was originally kept at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, but the Nazis transferred the collection to Silesia during the war to protect it from allied bombing. The collection never returned to Berlin, and is now in Krakow. Negotiations about ownership of the Berlinka have been ongoing for 21 years. It remains to be seen whether the discovery of the Munich art collection will accelerate or hamper the talks.