Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Process Of Returning Nazi-Stolen Art

Spoils Of War

Max Liebermann's Two Riders On The Beach: This is among the paintings that the Americans returned to Hildebrand in 1950, and which formed part of the February 2012 Munich hoard.
Photo Credit: AP
Source: Daily Mail UK

An article in The Economist looks at the intricacies and complications of returning art that the Nazis stole more than 70 years ago, much of it from private Jewish collections.

The article says:
Between 1933 and 1945 the Nazis engaged in the biggest art theft in history. They amassed millions of works from mostly Jewish collectors and the museums of occupied territories. After the war the Allies returned much of this art to the looted countries, but these pieces often went to national collections instead of the original owners. And many artworks are still missing, either destroyed, in museums or private hands. The view that these artworks are "the last prisoners of war" gained ground in the 1990s. Distance from the Holocaust and the end of the cold war allowed people and institutions to turn to the matter of objects. In 1998 44 countries agreed to a plan, known as the "Washington Principles", for identifying and resolving claims for stolen art. But the pact is non-binding, and the legal status of this art is murky.
The process of claiming looted artwork is often opaque, ad-hoc, expensive and uncertain. Different countries follow different rules and there is no international arbitrator to resolve disputes. Ownership records are patchy, so these tussles are trickier than those over bank assets frozen during the war. Only five countries—Austria, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands—have set up independent national commissions for handling claims, and practices vary. In Germany the commission cannot force museums to negotiate. In America most museums are private, so the government cannot mandate restitution. Different statutes of limitations dictate claims on private collections, and the rising value of the disputed artworks has raised the stakes for everyone. Big auction houses, such as Christies and Sotheby's, research the provenance of every work and encourage settlements. But smaller houses mostly defer to the law, which tends to favour current owners. Claimants often must rely on the good will of collectors or institutions.
Under the 30-year statute of limitations of German law, Mr Gurlitt is not compelled to return any of his art, stolen or otherwise. (And German federal museums are not entitled to any of the "degenerate" art they were forced to deaccession, as these works were government property.) This puts German authorities in an uncomfortable position, which may inspire a new retroactive law. The Gurlitt discovery has also served to highlight just how awkward it is to reclaim art seized by the Nazis. Some hope this will boost efforts to create a single searchable database of looted objects (though an International Research Portal of different national archives is a decent alternative). Others are advocating a single international art-crime tribunal. By drawing more attention to this unresolved chapter of the Holocaust, the Munich hoard—valued at around €1 billion ($1.4 billion)—may prove priceless.
Wow, this is no small sum; the Munich hoard refers to more than 1,400 valuable works of art that were discovered in the Munich residence of Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive octogenarian. The collection is today valued at an estimated £1bn or $1.5-billion (US). The paintings, which were discovered by German authorities in February 2012, include works by Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Cornelius had "inherited" the paintings from his father, Hildebrand, an art critic, museum director and art dealer who died in 1956. He had excellent relations with the highest officials of the Nazi regime. After the war, the Americans had discovered and confiscated the works (in December 1945), but returned them to Hildebrand Gurlitt five years later, apparently believing his story as a "victim of the Nazis."

Not exactly so. Often, the paintings were sold by the Nazis to art collectors like Hildebrand Gurlitt, who were willing to pay rock-bottom prices for artworks that the Nazis considered degenerate. It was a win-win situation for everyone, except for the individuals, often Jewish, whose paintings were either outright stolen or who were forced to accept prices much less than their value. Now these paintings sit in a public prosecutor's office in Munich.

In a Spiegel Online article ("Interview with a Phantom: Cornelius Gurlitt Shares His Secrets"; November 17, 2013), Õzlem Gezer writes that Cornelius Gurlitt says he does not understand why the fuss, insisting the artworks belong to him.
He doesn't understand what people want from him. He says the public prosecutor's office has the pictures now, so people should go there if they want to see the works or find out something about them. He knows a lot about their origins, he says, but he prefers to keep that to himself -- like a love affair that needs to be guarded. "And there is nothing I have loved more in my life than my pictures."
Perhaps this explains it all; no understanding, no remorse.

You can read the rest of the article at [The Economist].

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