Nazi art collection 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The German government’s response to the discovery of a trove of Nazi-looted art
has been shrouded in a “culture of secrecy,” a prominent art restitution expert
said on Monday.
A cascade of events in recent days, in particular, have
angered advocates: the publication of 54 additional pieces of artwork, the
announcement that 10 experts would comprise a task force to investigate the art
and the claim by a prosecutor that some artwork would be given back to Cornelius
Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi art dealer in whose apartment the artwork was
“There seems to be a lack of a moral compass and a deafening
silence about the need to prioritize the rights of the victims of these Nazi
thefts,” said Anne Webber, the co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in
In all three cases, critics said, Germany did not disclose basic
aspects of the investigation, such as the identities of the experts, the
provenance of the artwork or the names of the pieces of artwork that could be
returned to Gurlitt.
“What is surprising in what has taken place over the
past three weeks is the lack of consultation by Germany with the governments and
organizations whose citizens and constituents are affected by this,” Webber
said. “This is not a situation that can be resolved solely by
Wesley Fisher, the director of research for the Conference on
Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, said the government’s proposal to return
300 to 400 pieces of artwork to Gurlitt was particularly concerning.
Claims Conference believes that Augsburg should not return artworks to
Gurlitt until there has been full transparency,” Fisher wrote in an
email, “so that it is clear on what basis some artworks are to be returned while
others are not. Germany’s handling of this matter continues to be
Art experts have methodically determined that many pieces
of artwork were produced after the fall of Nazi Germany, a spokesman for the
Augsburg prosecutor’s office said on Monday, but documentation supporting that
judgment has not been released.
Despite experts’ concerns, top legal
officials signaled they may consider creative approaches to the issue, in
interviews with German newspapers, at the end of last week.
prosecutor, Reinhard Nemetz, said that while the possession of the artwork
changed when looted by the Nazis, the actual ownership did not. This could mean
an easier legal path forward. Meanwhile, the Bavarian justice minister, Winfried
Bausback, proposed the introduction of a new restitution law that would
reinforce the original owners’ claim to the artwork.
taken together, are very significant and show that the German government is
seeking enduring solutions, said Mel Urbach, a New York-based attorney who
represents a claimant.
“It would be a shame just to say, ‘This is the one
Gurlitt case’” and improvise a solution, he said.
“That’s really just
putting a Band Aid on a major problem that Germany has, and I think now we’re
beginning to see the seriousness” with which German officials are taking the
issue, he said.