German Nazi-looted art panel calls for more powers and a new law

The Art Newspaper 5 September 2023
By Catherine Hickley

The advisory commission said it sees the current framework as “unsatisfactory” and “in need of an urgent overhaul”

Pablo Picasso's Madame Soler (1903)

The German government’s advisory commission on Nazi-looted art called for increased powers and a new restitution law, describing the current framework for its work as “unsatisfactory” and “in need of an urgent overhaul.”

The panel, which includes ten members and is led by a former constitutional judge, Hans-Jürgen Papier, was created 20 years ago to deliver non-binding recommendations on claims submitted by the heirs of art owners persecuted by the Nazis for works in public institutions. It has so far issued 23 such recommendations.

In a memorandum published yesterday, the panel members said claimants should be permitted to ask the panel for a recommendation even in cases where the current holder has refused to submit a contested work for consideration. At present, both sides must agree for the panel to be called. That situation is “unacceptable and inappropriate” for claimants, the panel said.

The case of Portrait of Madame Soler by Pablo Picasso has exposed the shortcomings of the current system, the panel said. The Bavarian State Painting Collections and the state of Bavaria have refused to submit it to the panel, arguing the portrait was not sold as a result of Nazi persecution.

“The job of deciding whether this work should be viewed as looted is the commission’s, and not the affected institution,” the panel said.

The memo also called for its recommendations to be legally binding instead of merely advisory. While all its recommendations so far have been implemented, “in some cases they faced heavy resistance and were only implemented because of public and media pressure,” it said.

The panel called for a “comprehensive restitution law” that would allow it to issue judgments on Nazi-looted art in private hands, which is currently outside its mandate. It called for a public fund to compensate private collectors who have unknowingly bought Nazi-looted art and face restitution claims.

The memo also urged the government to create a central institute for provenance research.

The panel pointed out that the government had pledged in its coalition agreement to strengthen the commission, but that so far “neither the federal government nor the states have proposed fitting reforms.”

Rainer Robra, the culture minister in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, said in a press statement that the federal government, states and municipalities “agree with the commission that the rights of descendants of Nazi victims should be reinforced.”

He said that the three levels of government have reached a common position on reforming the system and planned to conclude their proposals at a meeting in October.

“Much of what has been agreed between the government, states and municipalities overlaps with the thoughts of the commission,” Robra said. He added, though, that the proposal for a restitution law “needs discussion.”
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