Germany’s museums are finally trying to come to terms with one of the darkest chapters of their history: the acquisition of works of art looted during the Nazi period 1933-45.
A recent conference on this subject held in Hamburg, was attended by museum staff, researchers and lawyers. Jan Philip Reemtsma, philanthropist and head of the Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung posed the question, “Why has this process only started now?” It was his opinion that the general public had not considered this matter until forced to do so by media attention and restitution demands.
In December 1999 the German government adopted, together with the federal States and the local associations, an official undertaking “to find and return cultural assets seized as a result of Nazi persecutions especially with regard to Jewish citizens” based on the Washington Principles adopted at the Holocaust Conference in 1998. One result was the setting up of a database (www. lostart.de) to publish suspect provenances in public collections along with a record public and private losses.
Petra Kuhn of the German Ministry for Cultural Affairs presented another joint initiative: a guide to encourage the museums to do research and help them into action.
Other speakers talked about the variety of ways in which restitution cases are handled. Norbert Zimmermann explained the approach of the Foundation for Prussian Heritage (SPK) which is responsible for Berlin’s State museums, and of which he is vice president. According to a 1999 decision of the advisory board, legal aspects are not to be the sole, decisive consideration made in assessing restitution claims; moral grounds for the return of a looted art of work should have at least equal importance.
The German government and the federal States are considering the creation of an independent commission for restitution cases, following the example of the British Spoliation Advisory Committee. Such a panel would consider the facts and circumstances of every case and would be able to take binding and quick decisions.
Anja Heuss, one of the first provenance researchers in Germany, stressed the importance of examining all aspects involved in restitution—historic, legal and moral. Her own part is this has been to explore the provenances of the remaining stock held by the Central Collecting Point, which forms part of the assets of the German Ministry of Finance. She explained the need for a clear record of the restitutions and/or compensations made after the war to avoid, for example, double restitutions and to help to find the rightful heirs.
It has become clear in the course of the conferences, that the exchange of information and experience is the key to this matter.
Until now, only a handful of institutions have had their own researchers and one of them, Ute Haug at the Kunsthalle Hamburg, has set up a study group with some of her colleagues in Germany. What became clear when some of this group presented themselves at the conference, was that these researchers are from a new generation, all in their 30s. And here may lie part of the answer to Dr Reemtma's question: only the passage of time has enabled Germans to look at this dark chapter in their history.
The publication of the proceedings on German restitution cases is Beiträge Öffentlicher Einrichtungen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland zum Umgang mit Kulturgütern aus jüdischem Besitz, (Koordinierungsstelle für Kulturgutverluste, Magdeburg, 2001).
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'German museums commit themselves to provenance research'