Germany has faced heavy criticism over its handling of the
discovery of 1,407 Nazi-plundered works in the flat of Cornelius
Gurlitt, an elderly recluse whose father took orders from Hitler
to buy and sell so-called "degenerate art" to fund Nazi
Since a magazine broke the story last November, debate over the
rightful ownership of works stashed in the Munich apartment —
including by masters such as Duerer, Delacroix, Picasso and
Matisse — has grown into a wider controversy over thousands of
paintings on open display in museums.
"They know what's been stolen," WJC President Ronald Lauder told
Reuters in an interview during a visit to Berlin. "And what
they've been doing is turning a blind eye."
Lauder, an honorary chairman of the board of trustees of New
York's Museum of Modern Art, said the discovery of the Gurlitt
trove should prompt a thorough examination of the provenance of
works in public collections.
He said Germany had not addressed the culpability of museums,
where the Jewish Claims Conference estimates 20,000 looted items
are still on display.
According to a 2012 survey by the Institute for Museum Research
in Berlin, more than 2,000 registered German museums hold
objects created before 1945 but acquired after 1933 — the
official definition for property suspected of having been
extorted by the Nazis.
Though not every work acquired in this time frame was
necessarily attained through Nazi persecution, only 285 museums — less than 5 percent of all those registered in Germany — have
researched the ownership history of such collections.
"The truth is, we all know there is a large amount of art in
museums which was either looted or sold under questionable
circumstances," said Deidre Berger, director of the American
Jewish Committee's Berlin office.
"At the very least, these works need to be researched," she told
Reuters in a telephone interview.
"This is an issue of great ethical and moral importance in our
understanding of the Holocaust and German history."
Asked about the criticisms, Uwe Hartmann, head of the German
national museums' Office for Provenance Investigation and
Research in Berlin, agreed that not enough had been done about
looted art historically but said Germany was now moving forward.
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Germany was one of 44 countries that signed the
"Washington Principles" in 1998 providing guidelines for the
location, identification and restitution of artworks looted by the
But Jewish leaders would like it to create a clearer
legal framework via a federal commission, as well as providing
federal funding for museums for the painstaking research that goes
into screening works with suspicious origins.
Berger has also proposed a certification system to verify
collections that are free of looted art, which could give museums an
incentive to examine their collections.
Even Hannes Hartung, Gurlitt's lawyer, who recently announced his
client's readiness to discuss claims, observed that some German
museums are "very reluctant to restitute looted art".
"If a museum is asking for restitution, they should deliver on the
other side," Hartung told Reuters by phone from Munich.
German authorities, keen to make amends and make details of the
Gurlitt collection public to help families who might have a claim,
has set up a "Schwabing Art Trove" task force, named after the
Munich district where Gurlitt lived.
The 13 art and legal experts from Germany, Austria, France, Hungary,
Israel and the United States are led by Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel,
Germany's former deputy state minister for culture. She said the
team's international profile would help "guarantee that our work is
objective and of high quality".
Munich lies in the state of Bavaria, which has drafted a "Cultural
Restitution Law" to facilitate the return of Nazi-looted property by
excluding such items from a 30-year statute of limitations. The
national parliament will consider whether to apply this at the
federal level next month.
Controversially, the proposal hinges on a "bad faith" clause,
requiring proof from victims that the current owner is aware of the
item's dark history. But Berger said the burden of proof should not
rest on the victims.
Current owners had an ethical imperative to know the origins of
their property, she said. "Simply saying 'Well, no one told me' is
not good enough."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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