Germany’s parliament is slated to debate this Friday a draft law to return stolen works of art to their Jewish owners.
Foot-dragging by the Federal Republic over the Munich trove of masterpieces discovered in 2012 has triggered urgent calls from many quarters in Europe and the US to fast-track a change in law.
Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, told The Jerusalem Post by email, “We would certainly welcome the lifting of a statute of limitations on the return of art, or any other assets, stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a unique event in modern history and it introduces unique challenges in the restitution of property.”
He continued, ”Just as there is no statute of limitations on the suffering of those who survived, or Jews whose families were murdered during the Holocaust, there should be no statute of limitations on righting the wrongs, including the return of stolen property, from that dark period of history.”
Winfried Bausback, the minister of justice in Bavaria, Germany, drafted a bill last year in an effort to come to terms with stolen “degenerate art” during the Second World War. During the Nazi regime, nearly all modern art was considered degenerate art, as it was in opposition to the Nazi ideology.
The bill is named Lex Gurlitt after Cornelius Gurlitt, in whose small Munich flat German authorities in 2012 discovered more than a thousand pieces of art, including works by Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Otto Dix.
Matthias Druba, who works at FPS, a prominent German law firm, told the Post on the telephone: “What is interesting in this case is how problematic it is from a strictly legal point of view. The bill is quite tricky under present German law.
Here in Germany we have this idea that laws should only be applicable to new cases in the future. And since Lex Gurlitt works retroactively, I am skeptical [as] to the long-term consequences it will have on our justice system.”
He added, “We should have realized this was a problem 20 years ago. I do understand the moral implications, but legally speaking I don’t think the end justifies the means.”
When asked by the Post if the original Jewish owners or their heirs should have the right to recover their artworks stolen decades ago, he acknowledged, “These people have been robbed,” but he argued that the present proprietors should follow their own sense of morality and return the art “instead of being asked by our court system” to do so.
In 1998, 44 countries agreed on the Washington Council Principles, which were supposed to accelerate the legal disputes on similar matters.
However, critics argue, so far countries have not acted on these principles.
Speaking from Stockholm with the Post, Anders Rydell, the Swedish author of The Plunderers, which deals with Nazi art-theft in the Third Reich, said that Austria, Holland and Germany are among the few countries that have made more efforts toward enforcement, while Russia, Hungary and Sweden are among the less responsive countries.
Ronald Lauder urged the German government last month to address the return of Nazi-looted art and codify the measure in law.