Pressure Mounts on Germany to Investigate Looted Nazi Art

The Jewish Voice 18 December 2013

Boldly speaking out against the egregious looting of Jewish owned artwork by the Nazis and others during World War II in Germany, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called upon the German government to create an international commission to investigate the art holdings in its public museums for stolen paintings.

Last Tuesday, Mr. Lauder, who is a noted art collector himself said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets that he personally has intentions of “lobbying 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.”

Thus far, Germany has dealt with the looted art debacle by waiting until the heirs of Jewish families have stepped up to make lost art claims. Lauder said that experts should behave in a pro-active manner rather than merely responding to requests and inquiries from descendants of victims of the Nazi regime.

"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 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, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Last week, a source close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government would give Mr. Lauder’s proposal consideration, however the source said that because Germany lacks direct oversight of regionally governed public museums, then Berlin would have an arduous task in the investigation of their collections.

Recently, a task force was created by German art restitution entities in order to scour through a multitude of paintings that were confiscated from the Munich home of Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was a significant art dealer for Nazi officials during the war.

Because the task force is mandated to uphold German laws concerning the theft of art, the WSJ reported that Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, the art restitution expert who supervises the group has said that it cannot compel Gurlitt to hand over any paintings even if the task force were to provide concrete evidence that the art work was indeed stolen from Jewish owners/

"That is a political question and has nothing to do with my work," said Ms. Berggreen-Merkel in an interview, with the WSJ. Her group will report to the local Bavarian prosecutor handling Mr. Gurlitt's case and not to the federal government.

As was previously reported in The Jewish Voice, following international pressure, officials in Germany have released 54 images of artworks that were recovered from the Munich apartment.

At the end of November, the Los Angeles Times reported that authorities began publishing an online roster of the works found in the apartment. The partial list of just 25 works was published on the site Lost Art Database weeks ago but the site has been experiencing technical difficulties due to high traffic, said the paper.

Published reports indicate that an estimated 970 of the 1,400 works of art discovered in Gurlitt’s apartment were stolen from Jews during the Third Reich.

"I will not give anything back voluntarily," Cornelius Gurlitt, 80, told a reporter weeks ago. "I hope this gets resolved soon and I finally get my pictures back."

He said he had never committed a crime "and even if I did, it would be covered by the statute of limitations".

The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, said the aim by prosecutors to give back some 300 works was an irresponsible choice.

“After the whole thing was handled over 18 months nearly conspiratorially, the hasty reaction for a general return is certainly also the wrong one,” he told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, stressing that the case had a “moral and historical dimension”.

The prosecutor who is investigating Gurlitt for tax evasion, acknowledged that many of the hundreds of works confiscated from his home in the February 2012 raid did belong to Gurlitt outright.

German authorities claim to have been mum about the discovery because they did not want to trigger any fraudulent ownership claims for the art, which includes works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Renoir and Delacroix.

Among the works listed on the Lost Art Database website are: "Moorish Conversation on a Terrace" by Eugene Delacroix, "Riders on the Beach" by Max Liebermann, "Seated Woman / Woman Sitting in Armchair" by Henri Matisse, "Allegory/Allegorical Scene" by Marc Chagall, and "Study of a Woman Nude, Standing, Arms Raised, Hands Crossed Above Head" by Auguste Rodin.

When addressing the matter last week, Mr. Lauder said that the Gurlitt task force had not provided ample information about the identity of its experts and added that this lack of disclosure could possibly cast aspersions on the group’s conclusions, especially among those prominent members of the art world. 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, according to the WSJ.

The report also revealed 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.

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, according to the WSJ.

Mr. Lauder said the problems with the Gurlitt task force call for the necessity of a larger commission that would be legally capable by the German government to conduct meticulous investigations of Nazi looted art, while simultaneously operate on an independent basis and with greater transparency. He said that such a commission would be similar to the one that the Austrian government created in 1998 to search through its own museums.

The WSJ report indicates that over the years, Austria has processed about 300 cases involving art restitution. In 2003, Germany launched the Limbach Commission for the ostensible purpose of mediating claims by Jewish family members to art work held in its country’s network of museums. Since that time, the commission has only processed seven cases. The Limbach Commission can only handle cases if both the family with a potential claim and the museum agree to go before it, according to published reports.  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, according to the WSJ.

Mr. Lauder has said that what is necessary for the Limbach Commission to succeed is an auxiliary body that can research potential claims arising from its museum collections, according to the WSJ rather than wait for descendants of owners 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."

He said that the kind of commission that he is proposing could operate on a similar basis to the commission that was established by the Swiss government in 1996, when it agreed to open and reallocate Holocaust victims' dormant bank assets. Thousands of claims made by heirs of Holocaust survivors for money stored by Jewish victims in the vaults of Swiss banks were researched by the nine-member independent commission of experts. 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 a similar approach should be taken in the art scandal that has been plaguing Germany and that the government should finance such efforts at equitable restitution. In addition to himself, the WSJ reported, Mr. Lauder suggested Germany make overtures to a handful of prominent Americans about the possibility of  participating in such a commission. They include Stuart Eizenstat, 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. Lauder said German courts would also need to put judicial muscle behind 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."
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