US presses Germany on restitution of Jewish-owned art looted by Nazis

Visit by Douglas Davidson, the special envoy for Holocaust issues, reflects an increase of American pressure on Berlin.

December 21, 2013 16:54
2 minute read.
The Salzburg home of German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt

The Salzburg home of German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt. (photo credit: Reuters)

A US special envoy visited Germany this month to urge the government to return a trove of Nazi-looted artwork to its rightful owners, the US State Department announced on Friday.

The visit by Douglas Davidson, the special envoy for Holocaust issues, reflects an increase of American pressure on Berlin, amid frustration by art advocates that Germany has not done enough to restitute Nazi-era artwork.

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Davidson visited Germany from December 11 to 14 and engaged in meetings with German authorities to “determine the correct legal path to restore to rightful owners the artworks that are found to have been looted or purchased under duress by the Nazi regime,” the State Department said.

Davidson’s visit — his second in recent weeks — complements broader US efforts through its embassy in Berlin and consulate in Munich, said Stuart Eizenstat, special adviser on Holocaust issues to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

At issue is Germany’s handling of the discovery of more than 1,000 pieces of artwork in the apartment of the son of a Nazi art dealer. Hundreds of pieces in the collection are believed to have been stolen from Jewish art collectors.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has also been in contact with the German government. The ministry has urged Berlin to act based on moral principles to return artwork to Jews, whether or not there are surviving heirs.

One proposal floated by Israel is to place artwork, for which there is no living owner or heir, in a special museum, said Ami Mehl, the director of the Jewish communities department at the ministry, in an interview earlier this month.

The news came amid a week of mixed resolutions for art restitution cases.

On Tuesday, the German government said it would not seek arbitration regarding its possession of two paintings sold by a Jewish collector who had fled the Nazis, meaning that the artwork would remain in the government’s hands. On the following day, the city of Cologne agreed to return 11 pieces of artwork to Jewish collectors who fled Nazi persecution.

Meanwhile, the German government has uploaded images and data for 442 pieces of artwork found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt to its official art website,

The government has stated that it believes 590 pieces of artwork found in the Gurlitt stash were confiscated from Jewish collectors. But, it has not publicly released how it made this determination.

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