/Nazi Looted Art: Where We Are Now

Nazi Looted Art: Where We Are Now

George Clooney, the director and lead actor of recently released film ‘Monuments Men’, has shed light on a crucial debate previously discussed only by academics that has now flooded the public forum. This debate questions the process of returning Nazi-era provenance art back to their rightful owners, which includes Jews, art dealers, churches and anyone other than Aryan descent according to Nazi ideology. Clooney’s interpretation of a true story set in 1945 is of a task force of artists and historians from Europe and America who sought to protect and return stolen art. This was estimated at a fifth of the world’s art (250,000 pieces), to the value of $2.5 billion at the end of the war. Today, the value is astounding. Some looted artworks were found undamaged and stored under salt mines or hidden away in homes of dealers and thieves. Unfortunately, other masterpieces were recovered tarnished under heaps of debris and rubble from the war.

Nausikaä El-Mecky, fellow at Humboldt University Berlin and specialist in censorship and attacks on art said: “Art took up a disproportionately large part of the Nazis’ political agenda…on the day the Nazis invaded Norway and Denmark, Hitler was not poring over military maps, but over albums of art from European museums.” Hitler had planned the construction of the ‘Führer museum,’ a large complex that would encase the ‘spoils of the world’ as part of the Nazis policy to cleanse the world of ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) yet, in actual fact, they did not destroy much art. Some were even sold to pro-Nazi art-dealers including French, Swedish and German auction houses to finance the war. Additionally Hitler showcased his ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition of stolen art in 1937. It toured Germany as part of the Nazis strategy to influence the country’s mindset and consider their degrading views of Jews, the ‘Other’ and the modern art world. However as El-Mecky states, ‘Nazi art policy was so confused and self-contradictory that it had very little to do with ideology,’ but geopolitical power and control.
The ‘Monuments Men’ is a fascinating story that bears the truth of those who sacrificed their lives to salvage the remaining pieces of culture and history. This has sparked much speculation into where we are, 70 years later, in returning Nazi looted art. In 1998, at the Washington Conference under Bill Clinton’s administration, 44 governments across the world agreed to the ‘Principles of Nazi Confiscated Art’ as part of an international effort to reclaim looted art. More art pieces are being revived and it was only made public in November 2013, 18 months after its discovery, that an estimated 1400 modern art pieces, worth $1.35bn, were discovered in the Munich apartment of the 81-year-old son of German art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who traded art during the Nazi period. This includes unknown works by Otto Dix, Marc Chagall and the oil painting ‘Sitting Woman’ by Henri Matisse. More recently, on February 11th 2014, there were reports of a dozen more pieces found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Salzburg home including unnamed paintings by Monet, Picasso and Renoir that he claimed were not looted art but legitimate purchases made by his father. This leads onto the next stage of the restitution process whereby verification and identification of who the art belonged to, prior to its capture, are ascertained. Yet, we are confronted with another difficulty; where does true ownership begin? Does the art go to those who signed and bought it from an auction house or go as far back as family members of the artist?
 (Henri Matisse’s ‘Sitting Woman’)

Gurlitt’s lawyer has recently published an online statement of his client’s position that says he has no legal obligation to return any “so-called looted art” and had no knowledge that they could be qualified as looted art. The statement also said: “He is prepared to review…fair solutions together with the claimants … at most 3% of the…confiscated works,” which is a small amount compared to how much consideration Gurlitt is willing to give to German institutions. His last sentence reads as, “Cornelius Gurlitt will gladly review appropriate repurchase offers made by German museums.”

In the German Civil Code there is a statute of limitations in which the right to looted art is within thirty years after the first incident of theft, which has long expired. However, due to the resurgence of recovered art, on 7th February 2014, a new German bill was drafted by Wilfried Bausback, who presented this to the German Parliament. The new bill says: “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.” As well as replacing the original statute of limitations policy, it is meant to speed up the process for the victims of looted art.

This new bill may be a solution in moving forward the process of provenance art but not everyone will be able to celebrate the merits if it is passed. For one, it can be viewed as a contemptuous stance towards current owners (such as Cornelius Gorlitt,) who have built relationships with the pieces of art which, if justifiably proven, have to give them back. Art restitution lawyers will see a drastic change in their practice, from once not being able to bring some of their cases to court and see the deeper repercussions for their diverse clientele. This may put individual owners at a disadvantage as they may not be able to afford the legal fees in contrast to their richer counterparts, namely the auction houses, art galleries and museums, which are government owned and sponsored by wealthy corporations.

Yet, what are these establishments doing to right the wrongs of the Nazis legacy? Many of them have clear guidelines they adhere to. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) announced that on January 10th, they were publishing large volumes of ‘Entartete Kunst’ from 1941 – 1942 that was donated by the widow of Vienna-born art dealer, Heinrich Robert Fischer in 1996. However, research has shown that the document is incomplete and incorrect in some parts.

The British Museum showed their active participation in provenance art cases by saying they had ‘been carrying out research into the provenance of their collections… in response to a government initiative … following an approach by Lord Janner of the Holocaust Educational Trust in 1997…Results of the research taking place in museums and galleries across the UK can be seen on the government Cultural Property Advice website.” This website is a good starting point for victims who want to search for their lost art themselves.

The Auction House, Christie’s, however, has a different stance on the issue. In a press statement, they say they are ‘taking steps to prevent stolen objects from circulating in the art market.’ They also said: “as an additional check, Christie’s catalogues are also submitted to the ‘Art Loss Register’ before each sale…’ Yet, all of these hopeful words end with an unsettling tone as they say, ‘We have a contractual right …to withhold Lots which we know or believe to be the subject of a potential title claim.’

(Otto Dix art pieces found at Gurlitt’s home)

When art was recovered at the end of the war, they were presented to ally governments of countries where they were looted such as France or Holland. Despite this post-war restitution method, history has proved that government owned museums, galleries and private collections have not been warm to the idea of willingly giving away art and have responded in a cold bureaucratic way. Thousands of looted art pieces are still missing which, some specialists suspect are found and undisclosed to the authorities.

Beate Schreiber, founder of the Facts and Files Research Center said, ‘Germany is using its federal structure as an excuse’… ‘They have very little sympathy and are making some scandalous decisions.’ An example of this is through their delayed announcement of the discoveries found at Gurlitt’s apartment 18 months after the incident, which Irene Lawford-Hinrichsen, author of ‘Five Hundred Years to Auschwitz’, called double criminality.’

Holocaust victims and those traumatised by the war were unwilling to discuss lost art post-1945, yet since the 90s there have been more books published and advances in art provenance research. Unfortunately, despite the Washington Conference, we still do not have an international arbitrator. Perhaps this is a political issue that should be raised to the Ministry of Culture or the Prime Minister depending on the country. Possibly the best person who can make a difference is Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany. Due to the complicated nature of Nazi-era provenance art, some establishments are not allowed to make an official statement. The Jewish Museum of London, Sotheby’s and the Austrian Cultural Forum were unable to contribute any statement to this article as there are potential risks of offending those affected; war victims, art dealers, government authorities, etc., and many further developments they were not updated on. We can only hope that more Gurlitt cases are exposed which, will eventually give political leaders the impetus and motivation to act.