Surging Restitution Claims: Berlin Grapples With Legacy of Nazi-era Art Looting

Returning looted art to victims of Nazi Germany can be expensive. German officials are meeting today in Berlin to determine how they can meet their moral obligations without totally depleting their art collections and bank accounts.

Buyers at Christie's in New York look at Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene." The painting sold for 34 million dollars.
AFP

Buyers at Christie's in New York look at Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene." The painting sold for 34 million dollars.

The sharp crack of the auction hammer sounds more like a death knell these days in the German art community. German museums find their works are fetching more than ever on the open market. The only problem for the museums is that many of their most prized pieces don't actually belong to them -- they belong to the heirs of Jewish art collectors who were robbed by the Nazis.

Museums are becoming increasingly suspicious that wealthy auction houses are using restitution claims to force prized works onto the market, where they are being priced out by the super-rich. "Everybody knows that the people behind many of these restitution claims are not really the heirs but the big auction houses," said Ludwig von Pufendorf, head of the foundation that runs Berlin's Die Brücke museum.

Germany's Culture Minister Bernd Neumann has called a crisis meeting today in the Chancellery to determine how to fulfil the moral obligation to return looted art while maintaining the deep collections and financial solvency of Germany's museums. Neumann wants museums to do more research on the origins of their works and to strengthen the role of an advisory commission that deals with restitution claims. He is likely to face cautious reactions from the museum directors, finance ministry officials, lawyers and art experts that will be at the summit.

Neumann is calling the summit amid recent record-setting auctions of restituted art. Ron Lauder recently out-bid Austrian and German museums for two restituted paintings -- Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene" and Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" -- which he bought for 34 million and 135 million dollars, respectively.

German museums simply can't keep up, and they are bracing for another 50 or so claims on important works. The Wilhelm-Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen already faces a claim for another work by Kirchner, his "Small Blue Horses," while the Sprengel museum in Hanover is being asked to return Franz Marc's "Cat Behind A Tree".

Perhaps most worrying for the museums, though, is the vague wording of who is entitled to make claims for restitution. Currently, restitution applies to "cultural assets lost as a result of Nazi persecution," which includes paintings that Jews who emigrated from Germany sold to support themselves. The volume of claims that definition could generate has German museums fearing for the future of their collections.

Jsg/spiegel/afp

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