Anyone wanting to visit Uwe Hartmann's office had better get precise instructions. Once you reach Berlin's Museum Island, you need to pass through a rear entrance and then through a few rooms and the Ishtar Gate. In the building to which the famous Pergamon Altar attracts more visitors than any other museum in Germany, Hartmann leads an institute with five co-workers that bears an absurdly long name: The Center for Provenance Investigation and Research at the Institute for Museum Research of the Berlin State Museums-Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
One shouldn't underestimate art historian Uwe Hartmann, who has a penchant for tweed jackets. Nor should one underestimate the job he now faces. As scientific director of a task force, he is responsible for shedding light on the darkness of a case which has been followed by art lovers around the world for the past two weeks -- the seizure of hundreds of paintings, drawings and etchings from the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, some of which may be art that had been looted by the Nazis. The collection had belonged to his father Hildebrand Gurlitt , who had collaborated with the Nazis after 1933.
Earlier this month, Hartmann already publicly stated his own position about the art. "In many cases, we're not dealing with art looted by the Nazis," he told the German news agency DPA. "We must therefore act on the assumption Mr. Gurlitt is lawfully in possession of this property."
Hartmann is charged with pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for the public prosecutors in Augsburg, who seized Gurlitt's art collection at the end of February 2012 on a very questionable legal basis . But his work will also be on behalf of the Bavarian state government and officials at the Finance Ministry in Berlin who were informed of the sensational discovery but said and did nothing about it -- and Germany itself.
Remorseful and Willing to Learn
The revelations have become a major problem for leading public officials, with lawyers of the families of Nazi victims criticizing German authorities for keeping the biggest find of looted artworks since 1945 a secret for almost two years. Following protests from the World Jewish Congress, alarm bells began ringing in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin last week.
The officials have asked themselves how former owners might react to news of the hidden looted art? In a country that has worked so hard to become a model student, remorseful and willing to learn, facing up to its Nazi past and compensating the victims, it threatened to become a serious setback.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, speaking on a visit to India, warned of possible damage to German prestige. "We should not underestimate the sensitivity of this subject in the world," he said. "We must be careful that we do not squander trust that has been built up over many decades." But what to do now? Westerwelle demanded: "The order of the day now is transparency."
Meanwhile, Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, promised a speedy resolution. "We want to expedite this," he declared. After the admonishing words from the highest level of politics, an unofficial crisis team met in Berlin made up of responsible -- and spooked -- bodies: Representatives from the Finance Ministry, emissaries from the Bavarian justice and culture ministries, a delegate from North Rhine-Westphalia and officials from the Berlin Commission for Culture and Media (BKM).
The Bavarians, whose investigators had botched the thing in the first place, tried to pass the blame on to the Berlin ministerial representatives, who had been informed about the artwork find from the beginning.
Art Experts' Identities to Remain Secret
In reality, BKM officials, for example, had connected the prosecutors in Augsburg with Meike Hoffman, an expert on what the Nazis considered "degenerate art." She had sent her final report exclusively to the prosecutors, and restitution experts in Berlin first learned of Hoffman's work after reading quotes cited from her report in Germany's Focus magazine.
Startled officials then finally agreed to establish a proper task force in the form of a group of experts under the political guidance of lawyer Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, who served between 2008 and this April as a deputy to Bernd Neumann, the federal government's commissioner for culture and the media.
Hartmann is to act as academic head of the task force. Alongside Hoffman, five other art historians will be hired temporarily or borrowed from museums. The Bavarian representatives want these art experts to have a public prosecutor at their side, as well. The exact identities of the other members of the task force, however, shall remain secret. That, of course, will leave less room for the transparency Westerwelle has demanded.
Berggreen-Merkel announced as a first measure that the public prosecutor's office in Augsburg will publish images of 576 paintings which are suspected to be looted art at www.lostart.de as soon as possible. But prosecutors must still determine the legal basis for releasing the images on the Internet given that Gurlitt hasn't been accused of committing any crime.
The provenance researchers now have the task of clarifying the origins of the artworks with the necessary expedience given the politically charged nature of the situation. They are tasked with ascertaining the labyrinth history of every single one of the 570 paintings and, specifically, whether they belonged to Jews or other victims of the Nazis. It's a Herculean task.
'Each Case is Different'
But it is unlikely the researchers will be able to act with the urgency required. At the annual meeting of the Provenance Research Working Group last week in Hamburg, the around 60 attendees spoke of "undertaking the requisite research into the Munich art find as speedily as possible, but also in the necessary scientific quality."
The working group has existed for 10 years, but its members have not been able to agree on a standard for provenance specifications. It's more likely it will take the task force years rather than months to identifiy possible looted art in Gurlitt's collection. "Each case is unique," said one provenance researcher, "every picture is different."
At first, it also appeared that politicians and officials in Berlin were hesitant to include members of the Jewish Claims Conference among the experts reviewing the Gurlitt collection. With pressure growing, however, officials announced Monday that 10 experts would be part of the group probing the artworks, including two researchers with the organization, which has sought the return or restitution of Jewish property lost during the Holocaust.
"The Claims Conference has represented the interests of Jews persecuted by the Nazis for more than six decades in all questions about damages and restitution," Rüdiger Mahlo, the international organization's German representative, said last week. "It is self-explanatory that there should be representation of the Jewish victims on such a commission."
While the task force is being created, investigators in Augsburg are still receiving inquiries from lawyers who want to know whether artworks they are looking for on behalf of the heirs to the victims have been found in Gurlitt's apartment. Some 100 lawyers have already registered their interest with the public prosecutor's office. They have not received any answers.