Art historian Meike Hoffmann speaks to the media regarding the seizure in 2011 of 1,500 paintings from Cornelius Gurlitt in Germany. / Getty Images
Today the Bavarian Minister of Justice Dr. Winfried Bausback presented a bill to the Upper House of the German Parliament proposing retroactive abolition of the statute of limitation for claims on Nazi-looted art. The bill was accepted to be discussed by committees in the Upper House, made up of representatives of Germany’s 16 states. Next, it has to be approved by the government and the Lower House of Parliament.
This bill is a long overdue start in the discussion of how to deal with Nazi-looted art in Germany, and it’s a necessary step toward changing the existing law. But it includes a condition for waiving the statute of limitations: the original owner has to prove that the present possessor bought the artwork with malicious intent. But what exactly is that malicious intent, and how do you prove it? The bill doesn’t say.
Almost 70 years after the Nazi regime, the German government still does not enforce the return of “Nazi-looted art” — art that was stolen by the Nazis mostly from Jews between 1933 and 1945. Recently, the authorities in Bavaria found a large art collection, the collection that Cornelius Gurlitt inherited from his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a dealer who bought art in 1941-1944 in Nazi-occupied France for Hitler’s planned museum in Linz. It is clear that parts of the collection are “Nazi-looted art.” This accidental find became public last November through a leak to the German magazine “Focus.”
But after an international outcry, heated discussions and heightened public sensitivity, the Bavarian Minister of Justice is now suggesting a law that — given its built-in condition — has the potential to make it even more complicated for the original owners or their heirs to get their property back.
That does not look good. It looks as if the German government wants to appear as if they want to make things right — without really trying. But now the world is watching. “Nazi-looted art” is stolen art. If I buy a stolen watch, I have to return it. The same is true for stolen art: the possessor has to return the stolen art to the original owner. With Nazi-looted art, there should be no statute of limitations, and no such condition.
Provenance research in Germany began only in the 1990s, 45 years after the end of the war. To this day, private owners cannot be forced to look into the ownership history of their artworks. And museums and public collections are not forced to either. Only since 2008 are public collections and German museums systematically researched. So far, they are guided by an international moral agreement from 1998, the Washington Declaration, signed by 44 countries, to locate art looted by the Nazis, make it public, identify their owners, and resolve their claims.
But there has to be more than a moral obligation. Instead, a mandatory systematic review of the collections in Germany is needed, and both process and results have to be transparent and public. An administrative body has to be created that collects and centrally merges the information obtained by the individual institutions.
Dr. Rolf Jessewitsch, Director of the Art Museum in Solingen, who devotes his work to artists whose careers were altered or destroyed by the Nazis, has stated that “there are depots holding artworks from private Jewish owners, which have not been opened” to this day.
In some cases, that transparency can be quite embarrassing. The discovery of a tapestry from the collection of Hermann Goering in Angela Merkel’s office, and a second one in the guesthouse of the German government, both come to mind.
No question, it is hard to let all this beautiful artwork go. The international community, especially the Jewish community, is keeping a watchful eye on Germany, waiting for the return of what Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, called “the last prisoners of World War II.” And the proposed bill — as flawed as it is — is the first step toward a proper legal solution governing the return of art stolen by the Nazis on a governmental level. Germany’s new Minister of Culture, Monika Gruetters, an art historian who has shown a high degree of sensitivity for German-Jewish issues, is already working with the Minister of Justice Maas on more consequent legal solutions that will hopefully abolish the statute of limitations without conditions.
This is not so much about art; it’s about justice. Just as there is no statute of limitations for murder, there is no statute of limitations for restoring justice. For that reason, it is up to the German government to provide the framework — structurally, monetarily and legally — to speed up this process.
Rachel Stern is an independent writer and curator living in New York. She currently works on a retrospective of the German Jewish Expressionist Fritz Ascher (Berlin, 1893-1970).