N.Y. lawyers for Jewish families trying to recover artwork complain of ‘technical defenses.
A New York lawyer representing Jewish families seeking to recover Nazi-looted art said a proposed German law being debated in parliament to help the families of Jewish collectors recover their stolen art “doesn’t go far enough.”
“I would prefer that all technical defenses in Nazi-looted art cases be eliminated,” said David Rowland.
Under the proposed legislation, he said, “my clients claiming back paintings would have to prove … that the German museums knew when they obtained [the art] that the pieces belonging to my clients were stolen,” he said. “The burden is on my clients.”
The bill, which the upper house of parliament began deliberating last Friday, still needs to go before the lower house. It would eliminate Germany’s 30-year statute of limitations that some collectors have used to avoid returning Nazi-looted art. But it would not be retroactive and thus could not cover an elderly German recluse in whose homes authorities have found a hoard of artwork, some believed to have been coerced or stolen by the Nazis from Jewish families.
In the Munich home of the man, Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, more than 1,400 works of art were discovered more than two years ago. Recently another 60 pieces — including works by Monet and Renoir — were found in his home in Salzburg, Austria.
Bavarian authorities made the discovery of the artwork in his Munich home during a tax investigation. Gurlitt is the son of a Jewish art dealer who during World War II became an art dealer for the Nazis.
Rowland told The Jewish Week that the bill now being debated should allow “no laches [unreasonable delays], no adverse possession defense. When these cases end up in the courts, I am for a special exception for Nazi-era art cases; no technical defenses at all in these cases.”
Another New York lawyer representing other Jewish families, Mel Urbach, said that although Rowland had made “valid arguments, Germany is moving in the right direction — which is something I want to encourage.” He said Rowland’s concerns should be “ironed out in the committee stage” and that at this point he does “not want to stifle” this bill.
“Certainly from a theoretical point of view that would bring clarity, and the more clarity the better,” Urbach said. “But today with computer technology it is hard for a museum to be genuinely able to say it did not know it [a work of art] was looted.”
Thus, Urbach said, the changes Rowland said he would like to see are “on our wish list — but it is not a major problem.”
Urbach said he is flying to Berlin this week and hopes to meet with Germany’s cultural minister, Monika Grutters, to discuss her proposal to create an independent research center that would comb the country’s museums in search of Nazi-looted art.
Her proposal is similar to one put forward late last year by Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. Asked his reaction to Grutters’ proposal, a spokeswoman for the WJC said her organization “welcomes the willingness of the federal and state authorities in Germany to bolster research into art with a doubtful provenance. … However, the WJC maintains its call for an international commission to oversee this effort and for binding legislation to be adopted that creates the basis for effective and speedy action in this field.”
Grutters will reportedly begin discussions in coming weeks with cultural ministers from several of Germany’s 16 states who have already welcomed the proposal. And the head of the German State Cultural Foundation, Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen, was quoted as saying she welcomed the idea of merging the “handling of provenance and restitution issues together.”
Without a centralized system, she said, it is difficult to determine how many museums had conducted provenance research on their art collection, to what extent, and how many pieces had been returned to their rightful owners.
Grutters told The Wall Street Journal that she proposed the idea because of flaws in the country’s handling of restitution issues that surfaced with the discovery of the art in Gurlitt’s Munich home.
Urbach said he applauds Grutters’ suggestion.
“She is saying anything stolen should no longer be protected,” he said. “If that happens, it will ease our cases. And when there is such clarity, the museums will be more apt to resolve our cases. … Lauder took an excellent position with the suggestion of an international commission. The Germans have endorsed the idea but want to adapt it and do it internally.”
Charles Goldstein, president of the WJC’s Commission on Art Recovery, said Germany “has been working hand-in-hand with those of us involved with restitution.”
“Is it perfect?” he asked rhetorically. “No. Is everybody happy about taking [artwork] out of museums? No. Are they more resistant than museums in the U.S.? No. But I would rather deal with the Prussian [Cultural Heritage] Foundation than with the Museum of Modern Art. We are trying to get it to review all of its collection.”
Goldstein said he believes Germany has turned the corner in the way it is going to deal with Nazi-looted art.
“After years of waiting for claims to be filed [for particular artwork] and having embarrassments like Gurlitt, the government is now saying and doing the right things,” he said.
Goldstein said Lauder’s proposal for an international commission stems from his belief that “the government that killed the Jews and took their property should not have their art, which is sitting in government offices and museums.”
Regarding Nazi-looted artwork now in private hands, he said their owners “did not kill the Jews to get their art, and people who bought these pieces at art auctions had no clue they were stolen property. In Europe, the civil system protects transactions — you get good title even if it is stolen — because the object is to protect commerce. There is no buyer beware in Europe — but you can’t buy it knowing that it is stolen.”
Gurlitt has reportedly said he is willing to consider claims against some of the artwork he possesses. Goldstein said that does not surprise him because although the German government could not force him to give them back, “given all the fact, are you going to invite hundreds of lawsuits? It would be in the press forever.”
He said that of the artwork found in Gurlitt’s Munich home, about 100 are paintings and the rest are on paper — and “artwork on paper is hard to trace.”
Although Urbach said about half of Germany’s 6,000 museums are private, he noted that they receive some government money. As a result, he said he believes their “collections should also be subject to the review panel.” He said he understands this is a huge undertaking and that it would cost perhaps 25 million euros a year and take as long as a decade.
In addition to paintings, Urbach said the review panel should also seek to return the Judaica — such as menorahs, Kiddush cups, prayer books and other holy books — being held by German museums.
“I have been told that one-third have markings indicating their ownership and that these items are sitting in museum basements,” he said. “Not everyone whose family owns these items have the wherewithal to hire lawyers to claim them; it is not economically feasible. But such heirlooms have immeasurable value to the families. Imagine someone handing you a letter your grandfather wrote. Nobody else wants it, it has no monetary value but it is invaluable to the family. We are hoping that this process will reclaim such objects.”