Others warn that legal ambiguity surrounding German property laws could make it difficult for heirs to the original owners to reclaim seized or looted works anytime soon. Even in the case of looted art, German law stipulates that the burden of proof is on the individual who files the claim to provide evidence that the artworks were acquired under duress.
According to an opinion essay published by the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Cornelius Gurlitt may be entitled to keep much of the artwork, regardless of how it came into his possession:
Adolf Hitler’s law on the confiscation of so-called degenerate art was the sovereign act of a sovereign state, hence all works that Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired as ‘degenerate’ are considered to be legally valid purchases. Therefore, Cornelius is not obliged to return at least 300 of the 1,500 artworks if he does not want to. Furthermore, the ‘Washington Declaration’ of 1998, in which over 40 countries committed themselves to search for Nazi-confiscated art in museums and archives and to negotiate fair solutions with the heirs, does not obligate Cornelius Gurlitt to do anything because the Washington Declaration does not involve privately owned artworks. We will have to wait and see what pressure German justice decides to use against him.
Germany is now facing pressure to amend its laws to make it easier to restore stolen art. For example, the U.S. government reportedly plans to press Germany to change its 30-year statute of limitations for filing claims in cases where the artwork is found to have been held by a private individual.
Pressure is also building from within Germany itself. In a front-page commentary published on November 5, the German newspaper Die Welt called on the German parliament to revoke the statute of limitations involving looted art and to declare that all sales contracts involving such works, even after 1945, to be null and void. “The greatest robbery in the history of art would, as far as possible, be completely reversed. It would be an overdue return to justice,” the commentary said.
The Nazis confiscated about 16,000 pieces of art during World War II, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. An estimated 10,000 pieces are still missing and many families around the world are still searching, but maybe not for much longer.
Art experts expect much more Nazi-confiscated art to surface over the coming years. “This is not the end of it,” according to Robert Edsel, author of the book The Monuments Men, an account of the taskforce assigned to rescue European cultural artifacts during World War II. (Edsel’s book has been made into a film by George Clooney, to be released in February 2014.)
“As the World War II generation passes over the next five years, we’re going to see more of this stuff coming out: paintings on walls, in attics from World War II veterans of all sides. We’re going to find more of these. I don’t know necessarily of this sort of scale, but we’re going to see more of it,” according to Edsel.
About the Author: The writer is the Senior Analyst for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group, one of the oldest and most influential foreign policy think tanks in Spain.
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