Detail: Otto Mueller, Bildnis Maschka Mueller, vor 1925. Leimtempera auf Jute, auf Leinwand doubliert, Kunstmuseum Bern, Legal Cornelius Gurlitt 2014. C: Kunstmuseum Bern

Museums step up efforts to return Nazi-era spoliated art

Geradline Kendell Adams, 20.02.2020
Appointment by Louvre signals more proactive approach
Efforts to return cultural property spoliated during the Nazi era to its rightful owners are stepping up in several countries across Europe.

In January, the Louvre in Paris revealed that it had hired an expert in the Nazi-era art market, Emmanuelle Polack, to research on the museum’s acquisitions during the period 1933-45. Polack has previously worked to identify Nazi loot from the Gurlitt trove, the cache of around 1,500 valuable pieces discovered in the apartment of a Nazi-era art collector’s son in Munich in 2012.

Her appointment signals a more proactive approach from the institution and the French government to not only identify and return stolen works but to educate the public about the importance of doing so.

In Germany, meanwhile, the German Lost Art Foundation set up a help desk this year to better facilitate the often painful and drawn out process of reuniting victims and their heirs with stolen property. The foundation, which administers an online lost art database, also won a significant victory this month when a court ruled that the current possessor of a work of art cannot prevent a claimant from listing the work on the database.

Had the case gone against the foundation, it could have hampered many other claimants in their efforts to list works on the database.

The country, which has in the past been accused of dragging its feet on the issue, has also seen several high profile restitutions take place this year. In January, the chemical manufacturer Bayer AG returned a painting by Oskar Moll to Leipzig Museum Museum of Fine Arts.

Days later, the German culture minister Monika Grütters personally presented three Nazi-looted artworks – two of which came from the Gurlitt collection – to the heirs of the Jewish art collector Armand Dorville.

These developments may be positive, but many other countries in Europe have still taken little or no action to identify looted property, despite signing up to the 1998 Washington Principles that comply governments and institutions to take a proactive approach to Nazi-era restitution.

A network of European spoliation committees was set up last year to enable cross-border collaboration on the issue. According to a source from the network, one of its priorities going forward will be to make diplomatic moves to encourage those countries collaborate more and set up their own restitution mechanisms.

There is concern that stakeholders here are not investing enough time or resources in provenance research. “The divide between the UK and other countries continues to widen when it comes to provenance research,” says Jacques Schumacher, the provenance and spoliation researcher at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

“I am working with colleagues to make provenance research training available to smaller museums in the UK which I think is crucial because some of their collections are not online, and they have very motivated curators who have the best of intentions but who struggle to conduct this research.”

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport spokesman said: “The UK Government remains fully committed to returning cultural objects looted during the Nazi-era. Our Spoliation Advisory Panel is a model of good practice, respected across the world and we continue to play a leading role in international debate on these issues."

In a statement, the DCMS added: “In 2019 we renewed legislation allowing national museums to return Nazi-looted art, where this follows a recommendation by the panel and the secretary of state agrees. This ensured that there is no time limit on the ability of claimants to bring forward claims in the UK. There are now two dedicated spoliation provenance researchers working in UK national collections.”

The UK's Spoliation Advisory Committee is not considering any claims at present.

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