Germany Creates a Restitution Commission

Germany has decided to create a kind of Nazi Spoliation Office. From the AP:

BERLIN (AP) — A new office within Germany’s Institute for Museum Research is opening in January to help identify and research art stolen by the Nazis, Germany’s culture minister said Wednesday.

The office, which comes under the State Museums of Berlin, will help museums, libraries and archives identify items that were taken from their rightful owners during the Nazi period, Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said.

“I expect from this an important push in Germany in the clarifying of restitution questions,” he said.

Neumann founded a working group to look into how to deal with restitution issues, after Berlin sparked controversy with a decision last year to return Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene” to the heirs of a Jewish collector who said the Nazis forced the family to sell it in the 1930s.

Some art experts questioned whether the expressionist work was sold under duress and whether its return was legal.

With the new office, which has a $1.47 million annual budget, Neumann said he hoped the restitution process would be better coordinated and more transparent.

This appears to be a good idea, and perhaps will preclude the need for private legal disputes when, for example, these works are displayed abroad as is the case with Schiele’s Portrait of Wally. Will this commission help to return works to claimants? Offer settlements? Or, will it instead merely warn German institutions that certain objects are suspect and should not be loaned abroad?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Another Dutch Holocaust Claim


Four heirs of art dealer Nathan Katz have brought a claim for 227 works recovered in German at the end of World War II reports Marlise Simons in todays NY Times. Among the contested works is this painting by Salomon van Ruysdael, Horsefair at Valkenburg. The claim was made public Friday, just as the Dutch were moving to discourage new restitution claims.

These restitution disputes are ill-suited to an adversarial litigation process with one winner and one loser as is the current situation in the United States. Professor Norman Palmer has persuasively made this case in the UK, while Jennifer Anglim Kreder has proposed an interesting idea. She makes a great case for an International Tribunal for dealing with Nazi-Looted Art. It’s forthcoming in the Brooklyn Law Review, an early version is up on SSRN. In the Netherlands the claims are studied by the Restitution Commission which advises the government on the return of objects lost or stolen when the Germans invaded in WWII.

Here’s an excerpt of the NYT story:

Although the Dutch government in exile had decreed that citizens could not trade with the enemy, many Dutch art dealers, both Jews and non-Jews, sold works to eager German collectors, who circulated wish lists in the first few years of the war. Dutch traditional painting was sought after, because the Nazis did not consider it “degenerate” art.

After the war the Dutch government returned 28 paintings that the Katz brothers had claimed. Among them was Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man,” believed to have been used to buy their mother’s freedom.

Evelien Campfens, a member of the Restitution Commission in The Hague, said the claim of the Katz heirs would “be a complex case, with many different aspects to it: it will take time.” She said that the Katz brothers were important dealers involved in many transactions, and that many important paintings had passed through their hands.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer’s Collection

Catherine Hickley wrote a very interesting article for Bloomberg on the efforts by France, Germany and Switzerland to divide Bruno Lohse’s art collection. Here is an excerpt:

Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to acquire looted art in occupied France, dispersed his private collection of Dutch 17th-century masterpieces and expressionist paintings among friends and relatives in his will, the lawyer handling his estate said.

Lohse died on March 19, aged 95, and has since become the focus of a three-nation investigation into a looted Camille Pissarro painting discovered in a Swiss bank safe that was seized by Zurich prosecutors on May 15. The painting’s prewar owners said the Gestapo stole it from their Vienna apartment in 1938. Lohse controlled the Liechtenstein trust that rented the safe.

“Paintings have been willed to relatives and friends in individual bequests,” Willy Hermann Burger, the executor of Lohse’s will, said in an interview at his home in Munich. Burger, who declined to name the beneficiaries or disclose details on individual artworks, said he’s sure none of the paintings in Lohse’s private collection are looted.

Lohse became Paris-based deputy director of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazis’ specialist art-looting unit, in 1942, according to the interrogation report compiled by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services’ Art Looting Investigation Unit, which questioned him in Austria from June 15 to Aug. 15, 1945.

The E.R.R. plundered about 22,000 items in France alone, according to the O.S.S. reports. The Jewish Claims Conference estimates that the Nazis looted about 650,000 artworks in total.

“There is a lot of art still missing and we believe that a significant proportion remains in private collections, especially in Germany and Austria,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a not-for-profit organization based in London that helps families recover plundered property.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Lohse became an art dealer in the 1950’s, and thus most of his private collection is probably legitimate. However, the Pisarro found in the Swiss bank vault, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps is probably looted, at least according to the Art Loss Register. This all underscores the importance of establishing and checking provenance for works of art when they are sold or donated. If the various European prosecutors are not as aggressive as their American counterparts have been, a lengthy and complex legal dispute between the successor and the descendants of the original1938 owner will likely ensue.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

German Police Recover a Carl Spitzweg

German police have recovered a work by Carl Spitzweg worth half a million euros, or $650,000. The painting, “Friedenzseit” (“Peacetime”) was taken last March from the Kunsthalle in Mannheim during a weekend in which the museum had been opened later to allow more visitors to view the work. Security may have been less than one would expect during the theft. It highlights a continuing problem for museums though. They want to attract more visitors, but as they do, security issues become more acute.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Iraq Challenges a German Auction


Iraqi authorities have challenged an auction of two Sumerian artifacts which took place on Tuesday. One item was a limestone statue of a Sumerian (similar to the one pictured here), which dates to 2500 BC. The other was a nail made of clay bearing an inscription which puts its age between 2097 – 2095 BC. Iraq’s culture ministry appealed to UNESCO to intervene, but there is not much the organization can do in this case, other than publicize the problem and force German authorities to take action. There isn’t much information available on Iraq’s claim, so it’s very difficult to gauge the strength of their claim. Perhaps more information will come to light, but at this point, the German authorities are claiming that domestic law does not allow them to take any action. If this had occurred in the US, federal prosecutors may have been able to bring a forfeiture claim, if they were convinced the object was indeed stolen or illicitly excavated. I am not sure if Germany has a similar legal mechanism.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Germany Unhappy with the State of Restitution

Apparently, the German Government is considering its options about how best to deal with art sold by or confiscated from Jews under the Nazis the Sydney Morning Herald reports today. This comes in the wake of the record sale at Christie’s last week, in which a number of returned works
helped fuel the market. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has summoned culture ministers and museum directors to discuss overhauling the restitution law. This was a predictable development, especially considering the fabulous sums of money these works are getting on the market.

I postulated last week, that something does not quite seem right about the heirs of these works profitting so handsomely off works which had been hanging in German and Austrian museums. Another factor which may be fueling these discussions, is the news that the City of Berlin is in dire financial straits, and may have to sell some of its cultural buildings or works. When Berlin was essentially two cities, it maintained separate concert halls and museums, but since reunification, the city has too many cultural institutions for its budget. This museum is the Sammlung Berggruen, which houses many impressionist and post-impressionist works.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com