Art and War Berlin's Jewish Museum Displays Looted Paintings

Six decades after World War II, debate still rages over whether to force German museums to return valuable art pieces to their pre-war Jewish owners. A new exhibition in Berlin traces the fate of works looted by Nazis.

By Rachel Nolan in Berlin


The painting is a war survivor: Originally part of a private collection belonging to the Rothschilds, it was seized by Nazis and stashed in a salt mine outside Salzburg. Hitler took a liking to it and earmarked the work for his pet museum project in Linz. Now the cows depicted in the painting, an oil by Abraham van Calraet, munch their hay and regard visitors at a special exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

"Looting and Restitution -- Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present," tracks the fate of disputed pieces looted by Nazis. Porcelain figurines, personal photographs, silverware, paintings and furniture are on display, alongside Hitler-era inventory lists and shipping materials. The show excavates the long, tortuous histories of the objects without entering too deeply into the contentious debate over restitution.

"These Nazi criminals were robber barons of the first order,” said director W. Michael Blumenthal at the opening. "We see the typical German bureaucracy. Everything is exactly defined and registered."

All of the art in this show has been restituted. The van Calraet painting went back to Rothschild heirs in 1998, for example. (They later sold it at a Christie's auction.) Some pieces once belonged to other famous names like the Dutch dealer Jacques Goudstikker -- whose collection of Old Masters was famously confiscated -- or the Viennese novelist Arthur Schnitzler.

Nazis stole some pieces outright and seized others when the families refused to pay heavy taxes levied on Jews under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Nazi paperwork on display classifies many pieces as "donations" to the German state -- an effort to maintain a veneer of legality for the seizures.

The exhibition is set up like a storeroom. It's a dimly lit maze of crates mounted with artwork, paperwork and objects. Architects used photographs of Nazi storage houses found by Allied troops after they invaded in 1945 as a model for the display.

Ongoing Disputes

Tracing missing pieces and their owners has become easier since the fall of communism opened access to records from Eastern Europe. Also helpful was an agreement called the Washington Principles, signed by 44 countries in 1998, which systematized how to deal with Nazi-looted art. But not everyone agrees on which pieces should be returned, or to whom.

The highest-profile case to date involved a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Berlin Street Scene," which was returned to its pre-war owners by Berlin’s Brücke Museum in 2006. The painting promptly raked in $38.1 million at a Christie's auction the same year.

Many Germans, including Minister of Culture Bernd Neumann, are in favor of scrutinizing German collections and responding to restitution claims. But some have argued the Kirchner case opened a Pandora's box of unverifiable claims, some motivated by high payoffs from auction sales.

"Unfortunately the conversation has had some anti-Semitic cliches and undertones," said Raphael Gross, director of the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, where the exhibition will travel after its stint in Berlin. "Some people saw good German museums on one side, and materialistic Jews on the other."

The idea for the current exhibition stemmed from controversy surrounding the Kirchner sale, according to curator Inka Bertz. But finding and assembling objects for the display would have been impossible without the Washington Principles, she said.

The Berlin Museum is not the only institution to investigate the newly accessible topic. An exhibition called "Looking for Owners: Custody, Research and Restitution of Art stolen in France during World War II" opened this February in Jerusalem and is currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.

"We don't want to take sides," said Blumenthal of the German exhibition. "But rather we want to explain the background and diverse positions of this controversial debate."

"Looting and Restitution -- Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present," will be on display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin Sept. 19, 2008 to Jan. 25, 2009 . The exhibition will appear in the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt from May 15, to Aug. 16, 2009.

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