German Museums Press Gov't to Tighten Rules for Restitution of Art Looted by Nazis

BERLIN - The German government is facing demands to toughen criteria for restitution to Jewish heirs of works of art looted by the Nazis. A number of museums from around the country have recently seen their most famous masterpieces returned to Jewish heirs and then quickly auctioned off to private collectors for tremendous sums. German culture minister Bernd Neumann held an urgent meeting earlier this week with museum directors to discuss their demands that claimants be held to a higher burden of proof in establishing Jewish ownership of art.

For years, German museums refused to return paintings to Jews, despite the fact that many had come from methodical looting. Under the Nazi regime, in addition to the looting, many Jewish families were forced to sell valuable art collections for bargain-basement prices to survive. An estimated 100,000 paintings worldwide still have not been returned to rightful Jewish owners.

During the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, the German government undertook to restore to its owners or their heirs artwork "lost as the result of Nazi persecution." As a result, hundreds of claims were filed, and dozens of paintings have been returned.

However, museum directors claim the process is too easy, and that efforts must be increased to verify the provenance of works. They also claim that the recent prosperity in the art world has pushed major auction houses to intervene in the restitution process - by finding the heirs and filing the compensation claims, in exchange for the right to sell the pieces at a high commission. "Everyone knows that auction houses are behind most of the claims, and not the paintings' real heirs," Bruecke Museum director Ludwig von Pufendorf said, before the meeting in Berlin.

The most recent case, which drew a public outcry in the German art community, was the sale last week of "Berlin Street Scene," by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, to billionaire cosmetics heir Ron Lauder for $38 million. Major art auctioneer Christie's handled the big ticket sale. The important expressionist piece belonged to Jewish collector Alfred Hess, who apparently sold it to a German art dealer. The Bruecke Museum, however, could not find a receipt for the purchase and was forced to return the painting to Hess's granddaughter.

"Cases such as this are problematic, because the burden of proof lies with the owner, in this case the museum," Mechtild Kronenberg, the director of the German Museum Association, said. "But many documents don't exist any more."

Museum directors aired several ideas for resolving the issue at this week's meeting: more money for provenance research on the paintings - which they feel would more convincingly prove if they need to be returned; a central "fire fund" that would allow museums to offer market prices to buy back paintings - the inalienable assets of the German art world.

"Germany is unreservedly committed to its moral obligation to restore art seized by the Nazis," Neumann said after the meeting. "There will be no watering down of this obligation." However, calls for more "transparent" and professional historical research worry the organizations involved in restitution for Holocaust victims. The German government announced that the Jewish Claims Conference will be invited to the next round table meeting in a few weeks.

Amiram Barkat adds: In an unusual move, Jewish Claims Conference leaders made a direct appeal to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to torpedo the initiative. The organization's vice president, Gideon Taylor, told Haaretz that senior government officials assured them there would be no change in the status quo. "We oppose any departure from the Washington Conference rules," Taylor said. "These proposals worried us because they represent a retreat not only from the 1998 agreement but also from the original agreement with Germany 50 years ago."