Nazi law impedes recovery of art

Updated: 2013-12-01 07:18

By Melissa Eddy and Alison Smale(The New York Times)

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HALLE, Germany - Wolfgang Buche was amazed in November when a watercolor seized by the Nazis from the small museum in this eastern city, where he is the curator, reappeared, part of a vast trove uncovered in a Munich apartment.

But his excitement at seeing the work, "Landscape With Horses," a possible study for a 1911 painting by the German Expressionist Franz Marc, was tempered by one fact he called "irrefutable": The 1938 law that allowed the Nazis to seize it - and thousands of other Modernist artworks deemed "degenerate" because Hitler viewed them as un-German or Jewish in nature - remains on the books to this day.

The German authorities say they believe that 380 works confiscated from German public museums under the Nazi-era law may be among the more than 1,200 paintings, lithographs and drawings found stashed away in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive 80-year-old son of a Nazi-era art dealer.

 Nazi law impedes recovery of art

Wolfgang Buche, curator of the Moritzburg museum, which once had one of the most impressive collections in Germany. "Landscape With Horses", below, by Franz Marc was among a vast trove of art recently uncovered in Munich. Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Nazi law impedes recovery of art

The law's existence renders slim the likelihood that Mr. Buche's museum or dozens of others in Germany can reclaim their works, German legal experts and museum and government officials say. And that law is likely to remain in place.

The Nazis sold thousands of the works on the open art market to fill wartime coffers. Repeal or reform of the 1938 law could unravel an intricate web of art deals involving such works that have been negotiated around the world since, something that even many museum curators like Mr. Buche are loath to consider.

Despite the lengths Germany has gone to to repair the moral and material damage done during World War II, for decades the restitution of confiscated art was not a topic of discussion or action here. No German government has sought to repeal the Nazi law.

"The legal situation is relatively obvious and clear," said Mr. Buche, who oversees the collection at the Moritzburg Foundation in Halle. "With art taken from Jewish collectors, there are sometimes legal or at least moral circumstances under which they can seek to have their works restituted. We can only seek to buy them back."

Indeed, those works confiscated from public German museums stand in a separate category from works seized or sold under extreme duress by private Jewish collectors, whose heirs may still have legal claims to the art.

But for museums like Mr. Buche's, the legal path is far knottier. What is more, if Mr. Gurlitt can prove he legally inherited the works - and the statute of limitations on any wrongdoing may long ago have run out - they could well remain his, unless a deal with the government can be reached.

Nazi law impedes recovery of art

While the German authorities have come under criticism for their handling of the Gurlitt case - in particular, keeping the discovery of the art secret for almost two years - questions have been raised about whether they had the right to seize Mr. Gurlitt's entire collection. He has not been charged with any crime.

The state prosecutor in Augsburg, Bavaria, where the case is being handled, recently said he would urge the task force appointed to clarify the provenance of the collection to tell him quickly which works are irrefutably Mr. Gurlitt's, so that they can be returned. Mr. Gurlitt has made clear he wants them back.

Mr. Buche, the curator, would like his pictures back, too. Yet, in his three decades at the Moritzburg museum, he has been able to celebrate the return of just 16 prewar items, a tenth of a collection that once ranked among the most impressive in the country.

Some of the museum's prewar works now hang in the Museum of Modern Art in New York after having been traded on the open market like many so-called degenerate works once confiscated by the Nazis.

The Kunsthalle Mannheim lost its Modernist collection, some 800 works, to the Nazis, including Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner's "Melancholy Girl," which was found in the Gurlitt collection.

Ulrike Lorenz, director of the Kunsthalle Mannheim, would like to see the painting hanging in Mannheim again and says she is determined to press the museum's claims.

Such claims could proliferate once the works, probably hundreds, seized from museums and found in the Gurlitt collection are more widely known. But some warn of the far-reaching implications of nullifying the 1938 law.

"If that law were to be nullified, then all the transactions would have to be annulled," said Sabine Rudolph, a lawyer who specializes in the restitution of art confiscated from Jews. "If one museum that recognizes a work in the Gurlitt collection insists, 'I want that back,' they may suddenly realize they have several works that previously belonged to other museums that they would then have to return."

The New York Times

(China Daily 12/01/2013 page9)