When tickets went on sale for this year’s Jewish Book Week in London, now on through March 2, one of the first events that sold out was a session titled “Nazi-Looted Art: A Time of Reckoning.”
Interest in the conversation between Anne Webber, co-chairman of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, and Lord Neuberger, president of the UK’s Supreme Court, received a boost last November when it was revealed that some 1,200 Nazi-plundered artworks had been found in a Munich apartment. Now, it has received another.
The apartment belonged to Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a notorious Nazi art dealer who died in a car crash in 1956. In recent weeks another 60 works, including paintings by Renoir, Manet and Monet, were found in Salzburg in another of Gurlitt’s properties.
A few days after that second news story broke, I sat with Webber in her office, aptly art-filled and a block away from Baker Street, the legendary site associated with sleuthing, where a cinema just happened to be screening “The Monuments Men” (the new movie about a group of American soldiers in World War II, who tracked down artistic masterpieces stolen by the Nazis).
“It’s almost as if the past has come back to life, isn’t it?” Webber said of the Gurlitt discoveries. They’ve raised people’s hopes, and already her commission has been inundated with enquiries from families from all over the world.
Though Gurlitt is a private collector, and has set up a website to present his side of the story, the case has exposed Germany’s culture of secrecy regarding looted art. As was leaked to a German magazine last year, the government had seized the Munich cache back in March 2012, but had just one researcher working on it.
“There’s a massive loss of trust in relation to Germany,” Webber explained.
Not that this is news to her organization, whose efforts on behalf of claimants are consistently thwarted by owners of public collections in Germany. Five years ago, she appealed to the head of the German museums association to publish lists of works acquired between 1933 and 1945, as well as works acquired subsequently that have gaps in information relating to their provenance.
“They couldn’t do that, he said, because then they’d get a lot of claims,” said Webber, a strikingly serene person who punctuates her observations with a wry smile. What makes the situation particularly frustrating is that Germany was one of 44 countries that agreed to assist in resolving issues relating to Nazi-confiscated art, at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998.
In 2008, Germany finally began researching such works, but has said it could take up to 18 months to study a single painting. To contextualize that time-frame, consider the fact that Munich’s Pinakothek Museum alone is said to have acquired between 4,000 and 7,000 works of art from 1933 to 1945.
Furthermore, it is the German museums themselves that decide whether a claim should be accepted.
“There’s a massive conflict of interest. It’s contrary to basic principles of justice,” Webber said. The moral way to go about it, she argues, is to do what the UK has done, and to publish lists of the artwork before undertaking their in-depth research, rather than making claimants who’ve already waited 70 years for a decision to wait longer still.
“Germany has dealt with so many aspects of its Nazi-looted past but art is absolutely its Achilles’ heel,” she said.
She hopes this will finally change. This month, in response to developments in the Gurlitt case, the German government pledged to set up an independent research center. “They’re basically saying the research is neither sufficient nor appropriate so far. That’s certainly the experience of the claimants,” said Webber, who negotiates with the German government on this issue on a regular basis.
“If the government acknowledges that the research isn’t independent, then they must also acknowledge that the assessment of the claims can’t have been independent either, and that there needs to be an independent claims process. We very much hope that this is the moment when they will accept that.”
Webber herself is a documentary filmmaker. In 1996, she came across a reference to families searching for looted art in a newspaper report on work stolen from a German church by an American soldier. So little was known about the families’ plight that when she pitched the idea of a documentary to the BBC, they asked: “Is it a story?”
She got the green light Britain’s Channel 4, and her film, “Making a Killing,” was also broadcast globally in 1998. It focuses on a Degas landscape belonging to a man who was beaten to death for the art in Theresienstadt. His daughter had traced it to the private collection of an American pharmaceutical billionaire, who’d bought it in good faith on the advice of the Art Institute of Chicago.
At the time, a costly and arduous legal battle was raging over the fate of the painting, but when the collector saw Webber’s film, he called her. “I’ve never really understood the facts before,” he reportedly said, asking if she’d broker a deal.
She did, and it was held up as a model for resolution of such claims at the Washington conference. Six weeks later, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe was founded and Webber still hasn’t had time to get back to filmmaking. This organization is the most expert of its kind in the world, and features a full-time staff that tracks down not only plundered art but also books, furniture, musical instruments – anything with sufficient identifying characteristics.
It’s a painstaking process requiring forensic research, and even when a work has been located, the burden of proof is on the claimant. One case currently nearing resolution was opened 14 years ago. In the commission’s 15-year existence, it has recovered over 3,500 artworks and other objects. Impressive though that figure is, in a staggering 90 per cent of their cases, the works they are seeking remain untraceable.
The very first case solved by Webber’s organization was that of a Parisian streetscape by Pissarro. The painting had been originally owned by Breslau industrialist Max Silberberg, who was forced by the Nazis to sell his entire collection. The commission’s hunt led its staff to the Israel Museum.
“That’s the irony,” Webber said, adding that Israeli institutions are not immune to amnesia when it comes to dealing with problematic acquisitions. It also shows how complicated the journeys made by these paintings can be. By the time the so-called Monuments Men arrived on the scene, in 1945, many works had already been sold to dealers. The art world, Webber noted, has not been helpful.
After being returned to Silberberg’s family in 2000, the Pissarro stayed on loan at the Israel Museum till the death of the last surviving family member last year. Two weeks ago that same Pissarro was sold at auction in London for over $32 million.
“People are entitled to do what they want with their paintings,” Webber said. “I think the museums use sales as a stick to beat the families with. If they’d been proactive it’s more likely that the family might have been willing to come to an accommodation with them.”
In one case, a museum repeatedly refused to even acknowledge in writing that a work’s rightful owners had been murdered.
“Everybody always thinks it’s just rich people’s paintings the Nazis took, but they took everything – your tablecloths, your towels, your pots and pans,” said Webber, who recalled a comment by renowned scholar and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel at a conference a few years back: “They stole not just the riches of the wealthy but the poverty of the poor.”
There is a moral urgency to the commission’s work that has only intensified as claimants have grown older, she added: “What the Gurlitt case has brought up is the terrible continuing sense of loss. It’s not that with time the pain gets less. In fact, the pain deepens.”
To illustrate what restitution means to families, she explained to me how, in the past 18 months or so, the commission managed to recover seven of some 160 works looted from one particular family. Photographs had been taken of their Vienna apartment before they fled – interior shots eerily empty of people but showing the paintings. As each work was recovered, one of the younger, more technically savvy family members colors it in on the black-and-white photographs.
“It’s about restoring what was taken away. It’s about bringing back to life a world that the Nazis tried to erase,” said Webber. “A world that was taken away.”
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