More of the Same—Latest Limbach Commission “Reform” is Anything But

Art Law Report 13 August 2016
By Nicholas O'Donnell

Supposed Changes to German Advisory Commission on Nazi Looted Art Short on Specifics

There have been a number of articles this week indicating that Germany intends to reform the “Advisory Commission on the return of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution, especially Jewish property” (Beratende Kommission im Zusammenhang mit der Rückgabe NS-verfolgungsbedingt entzogener Kulturgüter, insbesondere aus jüdischem Besitz) that is charged with making recommendations to German museums on claims for art allegedly looted or bought under duress during the Nazi era.  Yet the most astonishing part of the news is that it is no news at all.  It is merely a repetition—if that—of what was promised in March.  Only now it is not even a promise, it is an indication that proposals may be forthcoming at some indefinite point in the future.  It is further evidence that the entire endeavor does not deserve to be taken seriously.  At best, the “reforms” would address some of the appalling discriminatory comments made earlier this year.  But nothing proposed so far would compel a museum to submit to the commission, about which Bavaria in particular—the federal state that isin the midst of its own scandal for returning art to actual Nazis while giving heirs the runaround—notoriously refuses even to appear before the commission

The most extensive English language review of recent developments came in The Art Newspaper last week.  “Thirteen years after it was established, it is time to think about the future development of the commission in the interest of improved implementation of the Washington Principles,” German Minister of Culture Monika Grütters said—in June.  The article reported that proposals would be presented “in 2016.”   

Coverage was more expansive in German.  In a statement to the Deutsche Presse Agentur (dPA) reported widely, Grütters made a statement.  Changes to be proposed sometime in the fall reportedly include:

  • A revision so that commissioners are no longer appointed for life, in favor of a fixed term.
  • Some aspect of the proceedings would be made more transparent in the Internet.
  • Money would be made available to obtain outside expert opinions.

The dPA article left open whether the promise from March to include a Jewish community member (see below) would even be honored. 

These are all perfectly well and good in a vacuum, but entirely inadequate in context.  The Advisory Commission has handled only thirteen cases in as many years.  It either needs to be structured as a meaningful adjudication, with prospectively applicable procedures and commonly-understood effects, or it should be abandoned altogether. 

The point is this: what has changed?  Last winter, Grütters categorically rejected recent suggestions (including from members of her own organization) that the Advisory Commission that issues recommendations about claims for looted art in German museums should include a member of the Jewish community.  “We did not do this, and for good reason,” she said, because such member “would be the only voice who would be prejudiced.”

Until this blog and others took her to task for it, the comment almost passed by without incident.  The Sueddeutsche Zeitung then expressed astonishment, however, citing the Art Law Report. Catrin Lorch and Jörg Häntzschel noted (my translation):

But isn’t this also true for Germans?  They advise only in disputes about the return of art in German museums.  In the Advisory Commission founded by the former constitutional judge Jutta Limbach, was comprised of up to eight ‘voluntary, high-ranking individuals appointed from the scientific community and public life.’  Among them in the past were only Germans. 

An open letter from attorneys involved in restitution cases followed taking the Ministry to task for this tone-deaf statement. 

In early March, Germany appeared to respond to the pressure.  Grütters made a statement that she had recommended including a member of the Jewish community, and press reports indicated that it would be Michael Blumenthal, former director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and United States Secretary of the Treasury.  In the meantime, the commission as it is currently constituted further disgraced itself with its treatment of the Flechtheim heirs.

So it is hard to see this as anything more than going in circles.  Photo opportunities to follow, no doubt.
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