Germany must create an international commission to scour its public museums for Nazi loot, cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder said Tuesday, adding a prominent voice to the growing cry for more transparency.
Mr. Lauder, a noted art collector who is also president of the World Jewish Congress, said in an interview that he intended to lobby Berlin to form a high-profile group of art researchers and restitution experts to study the ownership histories of every single artwork with possible Nazi ties in Germany's public museums. These experts should be empowered to act proactively instead of merely reacting to requests from heirs of Nazi victims, he said.
Germany, unlike some European countries, has yet to engage in a systematic reckoning of its public art holdings since World War II, preferring to wait until heirs of Jewish families come forward with lost-art claims. Mr. Lauder said such an effort could turn up far more stolen art than the recently disclosed trove of 1,400 works found in a Munich man's apartment.
"More than 20 million artworks were stolen during the war, and many of them are still hanging in German museums," Mr. Lauder said. "We have not seen the will of the government to comb through its own collections."
Mr. Lauder, the son of Estée Lauder, is known in art circles for opening his own museum in New York, called the Neue Galerie, to house his collection of German and Austrian art. In 2006, he paid a then-record $135 million for a Gustav Klimt painting that had been reclaimed in a high-profile restitution case from an Austrian museum.
A person close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that the government was willing to hear Mr. Lauder's proposal. Yet Germany's federal structure and the government's lack of direct oversight of regionally governed public museums could make it difficult for Berlin to impose outside scrutiny of their collections, this person said.
The U.S. has also been accused of dragging its heels in art restitution matters, and it has never created a commission of its own, despite coming under similar pressure. Instead, U.S. museums pore over their pieces on a case-by-case basis as restitution claims surface.
Mr. Lauder's proposal comes as worries brew over the efficiency and clout of Germany's current art restitution entities—including the task force it recently created to sift through a trove of art confiscated from the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was a major art dealer for the Nazis.
Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, the restitution expert overseeing the Gurlitt task force, said her group must abide by Germany's laws concerning looted art and has no extra mandate to force Mr. Gurlitt to return any work—even if its members were to uncover conclusive proof that his pieces were stolen from Jewish families.
"That is a political question and has nothing to do with my work," said Ms. Berggreen-Merkel in an interview. Her group will report to the local Bavarian prosecutor handling Mr. Gurlitt's case and not to the federal government.
The person close to the chancellor said the German leader supported the work of the Gurlitt task force but acknowledged that under current German law, Mr. Gurlitt couldn't be compelled to give back his art, stolen or otherwise. The government would welcome suggestions on how to overcome this legal "weak point," this person said.
Mr. Lauder said one of his major complaints with the Gurlitt task force was that it hadn't disclosed the identity of its experts, which could undermine the art world's confidence in the group's findings. Ms. Berggreen-Merkel said that she didn't currently plan to identify the committee's 10 members but that she was in the process of enlisting internationally recognized experts.
She said that two experts from France and Israel had already agreed to join and that she was in talks with an American. None of the 10 members will come from auction houses or galleries because the task force "has a research and not a market focus," she added.
Art world experts consider Sotheby's and Christie's to have two of the world's leading provenance research departments, despite their vested interest in bringing their researched works to auction. When asked about this, Ms. Berggreen-Merkel said that her experts come with "an extremely wide network behind them" and can draw upon art world connections in assessing art in the Gurlitt trove.
Mr. Lauder said the Gurlitt taskforce's fitful beginnings illustrate the need for a larger body empowered by the government to comprehensively scour museums for Nazi loot yet also operate independently and with greater ransparency—a commission similar to the one the Austrian government created in 1998 to sift through its own museums.
Since then, Austria has processed about 300 cases involving art restitution—a sizable bump from the seven cases that have churned through Germany's Limbach Commission, an official body created in 2003 to mediate Jewish families' claims to artworks held by German museums.
Unlike in some countries affected by Nazi looting, the Limbach commission can only handle cases if both the family with a potential claim and the museum agree to go before it. It cannot independently investigate the origins of artwork, and museums in Germany have typically balked at putting their collections online as other countries have done.
Tensions flared anew on Monday when Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne Museum said it had declined to go before the Limbach Commission to mediate a dispute involving six Max Beckmann paintings that once belonged to leading Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim. The dealer's heirs claim the Beckmanns were sold without his permission during the war. Currently, these works belong to the Munich museum —although the heirs have been asking the museum to submit to mediation through Limbach since 2010.
A museum spokeswoman said the Pinakothek won't go before the commission because it thinks the heirs lack proof that Mr. Flechtheim sold or gave away his Beckmanns under duress.
What the Limbach Commission needs, Mr. Lauder said, is an auxiliary body that can ferret out and research potential claims arising from its museum collections, rather than wait for heirs to discover the art's existence on their own and bring a claim to Limbach or the courts.
"Right now, if curators or directors in Germany know they've got a Van Gogh that might be stolen, they're hostile about confessing as much and keep it in the basement," Mr. Lauder said. "A renewed effort and an effective program is the order of the day.
Mr. Lauder said his proposed commission could be modeled after the commission set up by the Swiss government in 1996, when it agreed to open and reallocate Holocaust victims' dormant bank assets. At the time, the Swiss parliament formed a nine-member Independent Commission of Experts that ultimately researched thousands of claims made by Holocaust heirs for money stored by Jewish war victims in Swiss bank vaults. The commission included experts from the U.S., Washington, Basel, Warsaw and Jerusalem working alongside Swiss bankers and lawyers. The Swiss government ultimately paid around $15 million to fund the commission before it reallocated all the money it could find and was disbanded in 2002.
Mr. Lauder said he thinks Germany's Nazi-art scandal merits a similar approach and that the effort should be financed by the German government. In addition to himself, he suggested Germany reach out to a handful of Americans about potentially joining such a commission—including Stuart Eizenstat, U.S.Secretary of State, John Kerry's special adviser on Holocaust issues; Wesley Fisher, head of research for the Claims Conference, another Jewish restitution organization; restitution lawyer Charles Goldstein of New York firm Herrick, Feinstein; and Marc Masurovsky, a longtime restitution researcher who serves on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the U.S.
Mr. Masurovsky, who is also co-founder of a Washington-based nonprofit that researches looted art called the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, said he would be willing to join a commission along the lines Mr.Lauder described, so long as it were "given full latitude and means to understand and establish the history of the objects," he said.
He said German courts would also need to back up the commission so that its recommendations could guide the fate of the works. "Independence, rigor and transparency would have to guide the work of such a commission," he added. "Nothing less.
Mr. Goldstein, who also is Mr. Lauder's lawyer, said he personally vets the ownership histories of any artwork offered for sale to Mr. Lauder to make sure it doesn't hold a murky past. It is now time for German museums to do the same, he said. "So much stolen art remains in the hands of the Germans who took it—only it's hanging in museums."
Dieter Graumann, president of Germany's Central Council of Jews, agreed. "The issue of stolen art is the last unresolved issue from Nazi Germany."