According to art experts, however, Lempertz, which was established in 1845, has a long history of trafficking in art confiscated from Jews, and it ought to have suspected the Beckmann painting was of potentially dubious provenance.
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Cornelius, who has not been arrested, are unknown. “We currently have no contact with the suspect. But there is no urgent suspicion that would justify a warrant,” according to Reinhard Nemetz, head of the state prosecutor’s office in the Bavarian city of Augsburg.
Speaking at a hastily arranged news conference on November 5, two days after Focus magazine published its story, a tight-lipped Nemetz defended the decision to keep the discovery of the artwork secret. He said Germany’s privacy laws prevented his office from making any of the details of the investigation public.
“Our primary attention is on whether a crime has been committed,” Nemetz said, stressing the “exceedingly complex legal position” of the case. He added that going public with the case would have been “counterproductive” to the investigation and would have posed a security risk because of the value of the artwork, which is being stored at a government warehouse in Munich.
Nemetz also denied accusations that Germany was seeking to keep the artwork for itself. “We do not want to keep the pictures,” he said at a press conference. “The pictures are not going to be put up in my office.”
A full list of the artworks, however, will not be published online — despite the growing number of calls to do so — because, Nemetz said, authorities do not want to be inundated with claims: “We prefer if people with a claim to lost artwork get in touch with us to say which picture they are missing, rather than the other way around.”
But many observers outside of Germany are baffled by Nemetz’s lack of transparency. “It is a mystery to me, I have no idea what was behind it,” Israeli art expert Joel Levi said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. “I have no explanation as to why the German investigative authorities are adopting this method of ‘Let’s wait and see what happens.’ I do not understand,” he said, “why it remained in the investigation rooms until it was revealed in the German newspaper.”
Art lawyer Lawrence Kaye told the Wall Street Journal, “I find it shocking they won’t list everything they’ve found. Families don’t always know exactly what they’re looking for until they can see an image of it.”
Another art lawyer, David Rowland of Rowland & Petroff in New York, called the German government’s decision to withhold details or images of the recovered works a “huge disservice” to the families of Holocaust survivors. “Without a list, we can’t do anything,” he said. “They should put a list on the Internet with photos.” Rowland also called the process of mailing off letters “just about the most inefficient way a person could handle this situation.” Going forward,” he said, “we hope the German authorities will be as transparent as possible.”
The call for more transparency was echoed by Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a London-based organization that helps families recover art seized by the Nazis. “As important a story as this is — why have the Bavarian authorities been sitting on them for two years?” she said. “Bavaria needs to publish a list of these works as soon as possible.”
Chris Marinello, the director and founder of London-based Art Recovery International, said Germany could accelerate restitution by making a list of the artworks available to the public.
“When you’re dealing with Nazi-looted artwork that may belong to heirs in their 80s or 90s struggling to reconnect with their heritage, a detailed list of seized items should be posted online immediately,” Marinello said. “There are so many organizations that specialize in researching Nazi-looted art claims that would have been happy to step up and assist,” he added.
The U.S. State Department is now calling on the German government to accelerate restitution of artworks to American citizens and people in other countries.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the State Department believes that prosecutors in Germany violated the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art of 1998, international norms that govern the handling of claims to art seized or looted by the Nazis. The specific provision violated calls for a speedy publication of information regarding the discovery of stolen works.