SPIEGEL Interview With British Art Expert: 'We Must Live in the Present'

Sir Norman Rosenthal, 64, was chief curator at the Royal Academy of Arts for over three decades. He talks to SPIEGEL about his controversial opposition to the return of art stolen by the Nazis, the overheated art market and his Jewish roots

SPIEGEL: Sir Norman, why are you calling for an end to the return of looted art and, as a result, an end to restitution?

Rosenthal: You cannot make up for anything by returning a small amount of art, and one should not want to create this impression.

SPIEGEL: Are you aware of the explosive nature of your claim?

Rosenthal: It is conspicuous that it is mainly the Germans who have a problem with it. Friends from Germany, liberal people, have warned me that I could be giving the right wing fodder for their arguments. The last thing I want is for the wrong people to use me to promote their agenda.

SPIEGEL: In the years and decades after the war, much of the art looted by the Nazis ended up in the world's museums. Aren't you going too far by advocating a statute of limitations in this sensitive matter?

Rosenthal: I have reaped more than just protests. Important museum directors in London and New York, as well as art dealers, even Jewish ones, have congratulated me.

SPIEGEL: Well, the fact that many museum directors are opposed to returning the art is part of the problem. They are worried about losing some of their masterpieces.

Rosenthal: I can understand that. I am aware of the fact that my expressing this sort of opinion publicly, as a Jew, has a different effect. And I would describe myself as a conscious, though not devout Jew. I am not claiming that it's easy. These are all difficult questions, but we ought to be able to talk about them.

SPIEGEL: We are talking about the biggest art theft in history, and about the fact that the claims of family members were deliberately ignored for decades.

Rosenthal: There is nothing that could wipe Germany's history clean. But this is not a burden that should be imposed on art. People, including some of my relatives, were murdered in concentration camps. Unbelievably horrible things happened. How can one forgive this? By wrapping up a Titian? These wounds don't heal, and that's something the Germans must also live with.

SPIEGEL: But one can return things to individual families to which they are entitled.

Rosenthal: An attorney offered to help me if I wanted to fight for the property of my parents. He wanted to pay for the inquiries.

SPIEGEL: Is art involved?

Rosenthal: No. It's a piece of property in Thuringia, where my mother comes from, and then there was a large farm near Bratislava that belonged to my father's family. But I have no interest in restitution. I want to live my life and not remain stuck in the past. The two of us, you and I, can hardly imagine what it was like back then.

SPIEGEL: You're saying this, as a historian?

Rosenthal: Yes. I am interested in the past. Everyone should come to grips with it, but I live in today's world. I don't want to profit from the fate of my parents, and I believe that my children will feel the same way. Every generation must reinvent itself. What counts is the present. We must all live in the present.

SPIEGEL: What does family history mean to you?

Rosenthal: For me it has a purely sentimental quality. I have even visited the places where my parents were born. I was in Slovakia and I was in Thuringia. I went there when it was still East Germany. I called it my state visit.

SPIEGEL: Why so official?

Rosenthal: I was greeted as a representative of the Royal Academy. East Germany was interested in exhibiting its art with us, so they went to some trouble. I was asked: What would you like to see, Mr. Rosenthal, would you like to visit the concentration camp memorial at Buchenwald? I said that I would like to see my mother's house in Mühlhausen, and so I was chauffeured there in a limousine. I walked into the courtyard, where two elderly women in black dresses were sitting. They looked like crows. One of the women asked me what the reason for my visit was, and I said that I was the son of Käthe Zucker. All she said was: "Is she still alive?" I said yes and walked away. It was a ghostly moment. I don't have any photographs from that day, because I don't take photographs as a rule, but I will never forget that scene.

SPIEGEL: Everyone has his own way of dealing with the past. There are those who would be proud of what their ancestors collected and would like to have it back. They are attached to family photos, and perhaps even the art their parents owned.

Rosenthal: That may be so, but it doesn't apply to me. I have no right to what my parents and grandparents achieved. And should a few people truly benefit from the fact that restitution is possible in their cases, while others, who endured equally terrible ordeals, receive nothing? That's unfair.

SPIEGEL: But by putting an end to restitution, you are rewarding precisely those stubborn people who still refuse to confront the past today. What museum provides even a reference to this history?

Rosenthal: But you also don't read, at the Louvre, that a given sculpture was once looted in Italy by Napoleon. This circumstance is nothing but a footnote in history today. The same applies to art that was looted from the palaces after the Russian Revolution. No reasonable person would hit upon the idea of returning the Impressionists and much of the other art that was taken from the aristocrats. At some point, probably relatively soon, we will feel the same way about the Nazi looting.

SPIEGEL: Even though more and more new books and studies have since appeared on the subject of looted art, many questions remain unanswered, and many cases are unresolved. There is no reason unfurl the cloak of silence once again.

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