Before the Nazis rose to power, the majority of German Jewish art collections were in Berlin and the art trade flourished. Museums today effect some restitution, but many looted artworks remain unreturned. To shed some light on this, the article features various people involved in the field of provenance research and restitution in Berlin, characterised as the capital of provenance research: a museum director, a provenance researcher, a lawyer, an auction house owner and the director of an archive.
The museum director is Heinrich Schulze Altcappenberg of Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) who says ‘If a work of art is unlawfully in our collection, if it is stained with blood, we should not keep it’. Hanna Strzoda, a provenance researcher with the Kupferstichkabinett adds ‘after all, this is not about abstract property issues but the fates of human beings’. The Berlin museums will be launching a new website in March featuring a ‘Gallery of the 20th Century’, the West German predecessor of today’s Neue Nationalgalerie.
The lawyer is Imke Gielen. Unlike museums, which start research with an existing collection, lawyers first have to establish which works of art a persecuted family once possessed and lost. The lostart.de database, where circa 100,000 objects are registered, is a place to include in the research, although Imke Gielen asserts that ‘the majority of the countless missing artworks are most likely today in private collections… where else could they be? They cannot all be in museums’.
Not irregularly, looted works of art appear on the art market, and the number of looted works sent for auction by 'unknowing' sellers is increasing. Markus Krause, owner of the Villa Grisebach auction house and expert on Modern Art, says ‘the readiness of sellers to come to a settlement with the heirs is increasing’. Today’s art market is more sensitised to looted art.
Museums now check before they acquire a work of art and are in difficulty if all details of a provenance cannot be clarified. Petra Winter, director of Berlin’s Zentralarchiv says, ‘The museums have their backs to the wall. Provenance research cannot close all gaps. Often one can only manage to exclude a suspicion’.
Nicola Kuhn is the co-author with Meike Hoffmann of ‘Hitlers Kunsthandler. Hildebrand Gurlitt 1895-1956’ to be published on 9 March 2016 by C. H. Beck Verlag.