Monday, May 04, 2015

Entartete Kunst: Restitution of Nazi-Looted Art

When the Nazis were terrorizing Europe in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler ordered a purge of “degenerate artists.” Art that was considered to be unworthy was taken from galleries, museums and collections and brought to Berlin to be featured in a “Show of Degenerate Art.” This exhibition was meant to show people which artists were forbidden, such as Matisse, Van Gogh and Picasso.

After the show, many pieces were sold off to collectors and have been changing hands for years. Sometimes, Jewish families trying to escape Nazi control sold their art under duress. Under the art restitution laws of many countries, if a collector sells art under duress for a lower price than what the piece is worth, the original owner no longer has the right to legal ownership.

German soldiers in Naples pose with a piece by Giovanni Paolo Pannini taken from the
National Museum of Naples Picture Gallery. Photo from the German Federal Archives.

Over the past few years, restitution laws have been changing and strengthening, and many stolen works of art have been returned to their legal owners, but many others are still missing. Often, it can be hard to track down the original owners because paperwork has been lost over the years. A bit surprisingly, the Germans kept good records of the art that was taken. Many of these records have surfaced, enabling experts to track down the works more easily. Auction houses hire these experts to make sure they are not selling stolen works, and rightful owners hire them to track down their property.

Sometimes, it’s not just one or two stolen works that are found, but hundreds. In 2012, while investigating a case of tax fraud, German authorities seized a collection of nearly 1,400 works of art from the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, a German art collector. Gurlitt’s father was an art dealer who helped the Nazis sell the “degenerate” art. Gurlitt, who died last year, inherited the art from his father and bequeathed it to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland. The museum and the German government have agreed to work together to make sure that any pieces determined to have been looted are returned to the rightful owner. However, if the rightful owner cannot be found or the piece came to Gurlitt’s collection though legal means, it will be displayed in the museum. This process gives any potential rightful owners the museum is unable to track down a chance to see the work in question while it is on display and come forward to claim it.

The Georgia Museum of Art tries to be very careful that we do not deal in any stolen works of art. There are more than 10,000 objects in our collection and another 2,000 on extended loan, meaning the museum does not own them. Most of the works in the collection are American, which usually have fewer provenance issues (the provenance of a work of art is its ownership history). But with any work, especially ones that are more valuable or unique, it is important to look at its records and make sure it came to the museum from a reputable source. Although it is not impossible, it is difficult for these records to be falsified.

According to Dr. Lynn Boland, the museum’s Pierre Daura Curator of European Art, the ideal situation would be to track the piece back to its creator, but that is not always possible. It is also important to make sure that foreign works left their country of origin legally. To Dr. Boland’s knowledge, the museum has never had a stolen work in its collection. The museum is also in the process of making its full collection database available to be viewed online, which could aid in restitution. An expert searching for a stolen work of art could find it in the museum’s inventory. If that happens, the expert can contact the museum and records would be compared to begin the restitution process.

If you’d like to read more about the art the Nazis stole, check out these articles: