Nazi art task force frustrates art restitution advocates

Jerusalem Post 15 December 2013
By Henry Rome

Task force's goal is to determine the origins of hundreds of pieces of art seized from the son of a Nazi art dealer.

A month after the German government created a task force to investigate art apparently looted by the Nazis, documents and interviews reveal a paradox that has frustrated art restitution advocates: While the task force has assumed the power to make consequential determinations about artwork, it plans to do so in near-total secrecy.

The establishment of the task force was announced in early November. Its goal is to determine the origins of hundreds of pieces of art seized from an apartment inhabited by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi art dealer. While advocates and attorneys disagree about the severity of the situation, several agree that the task force’s power is constrained because it is not independent.

The task force acknowledged as much, saying in a statement released late on Wednesday that it reports “exclusively” to the prosecutor’s office in the Bavarian city of Augsburg.

“The task force does not make decisions over the property status and thus cannot replace the decisions of the prosecutor’s office, negotiations with Mr. Gurlitt or even proceedings in front of civil courts,” wrote Dr. Matthias Henkel, spokesman for the task force.

But claimants who sent provenance information to the task force, as recently as Tuesday, received a generic email response in English that explained that the “task force cannot decide legal claims, but conducts a fact-finding mission in order to provide the factual basis for such decisions.”

Anne Webber, the co-founder of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said this assertion represented an expansion of the task force’s publicly announced responsibilities.

“The German authorities, to date, have said that the role of the task force is to conduct provenance research on the works of art in the Gurlitt collection. It has not said at any time that the task force will be deciding the ‘factual basis’ for deciding ‘legal claims,’” she said.

Webber added that she was concerned that the task force’s determinations could have implications for claims that families made in court in the future.

For families who believe they have solid proof of the origin of a painting, the uncertainty is all the more frustrating.

“We anticipate that if the documentation is good, and they make a determination [of] ‘yes’ on the facts this is a looted work of art, they’re just going to kick it back to Augsburg [the prosecutor’s office], and we still have to wait for the determination of the legal claim,” said Chris Marinello, the director of Art Recovery International who is representing a claimant.

The issue of transparency has drawn the ire of advocates.

While the task force continues to claim that it will “establish the highest transparency,” basic information, such as the makeup of the 10-person task force, is hidden.

The cornerstone of the United States’ advice to the German government has been to increase the transparency of the restitution process, such as publishing the full list of works online and employing a “proper claims mechanism,” said Stuart Eizenstat, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s special adviser on Holocaust issues.

“I think that the Germans are moving in good faith to try to deal with a very complicated situation,” Eizenstat said on Thursday. “We’re not there yet, but we’re moving in a positive direction, I think, toward more transparency and eliminating barriers to eventual claims.”

The Israeli government reiterated on Thursday its position that it is Germany’s “moral duty to give the collection to the Jewish people,” said Ami Mehl, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Jewish Communities Department.

The issue comes down to whether Berlin ought to treat the Gurlitt case as a legal or a moral one, said Dr. Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which will have two representatives on the task force.

“It would seem reasonable that the question of theft in time of genocide… trumps, if you will, the question of the legal rights of an individual who has been keeping a hidden collection,” Fisher said on Thursday.

But, he added, “that does not mean that Mr. Gurlitt should not have any rights. Of course he should.”

Lothar Fremy, a Berlin-based art attorney, cautioned that Germany must continue to act within the law to resolve the claims.

“You just can’t shove the legal system away and say, ‘We have to do something for our reputation so let’s do something illegal here.’ This is a big problem [that] Germany has,” Fremy said. “It’s such a disaster now.”
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