Germany to Consider Lifting Statute of Limitations on Cases Involving Stolen Property

New York Times 13 February 2014
By Melissa Eddy

MUNICH — German authorities are expected to propose a law on Friday lifting the country’s 30-year statute of limitations for certain cases involving stolen property, a move that would make it easier for Jewish families to seek the return of art, furniture or other valuables taken from them by the Nazis.

The legislation comes in response to the uproar surrounding the discovery, made public late last year, of hundreds of possibly looted artworks in the Munich home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer who worked for the Nazis during World War II. The proposed law was drawn up by Winfried Bausback, the Bavarian justice minister, and is to be introduced in the upper house of the German Parliament.

Under current law, which is part of Germany’s civil code, former owners cannot seek the return of their property more than 30 years after it was taken from them. For property taken during World War II, this means that the window to seek legal restitution closed in 1975. Previous attempts to change the law have failed, but with world powers closely watching Germany in the wake of the Gurlitt discovery, there are hopes that this bill will pass.

Critics, however, charge that the proposed legislation still presents hurdles by requiring original owners to prove malicious intent on the part of the current holder of the property. In the case of looted art, malicious intent could include a buyer’s failure to thoroughly research a work’s provenance before purchasing it, according to the Bavarian justice authorities.

Mr. Bausback had barely been in office two months when the Gurlitt case exploded in November. In an interview on Thursday, he said that he used the resulting outcry as a chance to re-examine German laws and the challenges they presented to Jews seeking to regain looted valuables. One of the most obvious, he said, was the 30-year statute of limitations.

“It cannot be that victims of the Nazi regime are able to prove that, for example, a picture that belonged to their father or grandfather was stolen by the Nazis, then they are met with a shrugging of the shoulders and a ‘Sorry, but the statute of limitations has expired,’ ” Mr. Bausback said.

Although it has become known in Germany as the Lex Gurlitt, the proposed new law would apply to any property that a previous owner can prove was wrongfully taken. The Bavarian proposal would first be debated by committees in the upper house, made up of representatives of Germany’s 16 states. It would then require approval from both Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and the lower house of Parliament.

If it does pass, the change will signal a crucial willingness on the part of Germany to take more seriously the commitments that it agreed to in 1998 when it became one of 44 countries to sign the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. Under that accord, participating countries agreed to seek to repair the damage caused by the wholesale looting of art owned by Jews under the Third Reich.

“The goal of this proposed law is to correct the current, unsatisfactory legal situation and to allow owners of objects that have been wrongly taken from them the possibility of restitution of their property from mala fide owners,” the new bill reads.

Lawyers who specialize in looted art say many restitution cases never even make it to court because of the limitations, and they welcomed the proposed changes as an important step in helping to bring justice and closure to the victims of the Nazis.

“Removal of the 30-year statute of limitations would be a major step in the right direction,” Mel Urbach, a lawyer based in New York who represents clients in dozens of restitution claims in Germany, said in an email.

“The proposed legislation would bring much-needed clarity to a process that is unnecessarily submerged in confusion and doubt,” Mr. Urbach added. “It would add teeth to the Washington principles and joint declarations, and claims would be resolved quickly.”

German officials have recently acknowledged the need for their country to increase efforts to resolve restitution disputes. The culture minister, Monika Grütters, has proposed doubling government funding for the issue and establishing a new, independent center to deal with provenance research and restitution.

Jewish organizations, in particular, are looking to the Germans to take the lead on restitution, and an increased commitment from Germany could encourage other countries to take similar steps, too.

Philipp Missfelder, the German government’s coordinator for trans-Atlantic relations, said several leading Jewish organizations had displayed a willingness to cooperate with Berlin on resolving the Gurlitt case in hopes that it would improve the handling of restitution issues in the future.

“We should act on this willingness,” said Mr. Missfelder, emphasizing that Germany must be aware of the moral, as well as the legal, implications involved in dealing with Nazi-looted art. “There is enormous interest in clearing up this issue.”
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