Experts in Looted Art and Restitution; Calls for Transparency, Cites Moral Imperative
January 8, 2014 — To assist in determining the extent and origin of Nazi-looted art in the collection discovered to be in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich, Germany, the Claims Conference has recommended two experts in Holocaust-era art recovery to serve on the task force that will investigate the ownership histories of these 1,400 works.
The Claims Conference has recommended Agnes Peresztegi and Sophie Lillie to serve on the task force led by Dr. Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, Germany’s former Deputy State Minister for Culture. The task force will focus on researching the provenance (ownership history from creation to the present) of these artworks.
The revelation of the collection of more than 1,400 artworks, the largest privately-held collection of looted art discovered since the end of WWII, requires special attention. This discovery calls attention to the approximately 20,000 looted items that are known to be in German museums and institutions, let alone the many other objects yet to be identified.
“For more than 60 years, Germany has set the standard for Holocaust-related compensation and restitution. The country that perpetrated the most horrific crime in history has also done the most to acknowledge its guilt and recognize the suffering of the victims,” said Greg Schneider, Claims Conference Executive Vice President. “The discovery of the Gurlitt collection gives the Merkel government and the German people the opportunity to show the world what can and should be done. These final years of Holocaust-era restitution are a chance to add to Germany’s moral legacy, by adopting new laws on looted art restitution and creating a transparent system, the import of which will resonate for centuries to come.”
Although the task force will assist the office of the public prosecutor of Augsburg, Bavaria in what is being treated as a legal case, this is not simply a matter of law. It is a moral issue, and the collection must be treated in accordance with the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art endorsed by 44 countries, including Germany.
Following those principles, the Claims Conference is calling for:
- Publication of all the artworks in the collection
- Transparency on all aspects of the task force including the research process it is following and the regular updates on its progress.
- Publication of the results of the research
- An easy, non-bureaucratic process for original owners or their heirs to claim their artworks
- The ability of claimants to appeal the findings of the task force
- Investigation into sales of artworks since World War II by the Gurlitt family
- Investigation into the postwar activities of Nazi art traders generally
- Establishment of an international commission to review the looted items known to be in German museums and institutions and other objects yet to be identified
- Changes in German laws as necessary
“The ultimate goal of everyone involved must be to reunite Nazi-era looted artworks with their rightful owners. The approach of the authorities to these artworks until now does not recognize the special circumstances behind their theft and concealment,” said Claims Conference Chairman Julius Berman. “This matter transcends local legal authority and must be handled in accordance with internationally recognized principles regarding Nazi plunder.”
The Claims Conference believes that there are works in the Gurlitt collection that are in its searchable database of more than 22,000 art objects looted from Jews in France and Belgium. The database, which comprises the digitized versions of original Nazi looting records and photographs, is at www.errproject.org/jeudepaume. In all likelihood, it includes information about some of the paintings recently discovered in Munich and must be consulted in order to determine rightful ownership.
The information in the database, based on art that the Nazis stored temporarily at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, is searchable by item, artist, owner and whether items have been returned. Jewish dealer Paul Rosenberg – the owner of at least one painting found in the Munich collection — possessed a large collection of items that the Nazis amassed at the Jeu de Paume. Nazi leader Hermann Goering personally appointed a number of dealers to sell off Rosenberg’s collection, including Hildebrandt Gurlitt, whose son Cornelius was hiding the 1,400 artworks found in 2012.
“All the works must be made public to enable families to identify and find art that was stolen from them,” said Mr. Berman. “In addition, the work of the task force must be public and transparent. Secrecy will hinder restitution. Knowledge and publicity will expedite restitution. The primary concern must be restoring them to their rightful owners.”
Ms. Peresztegi has more than 20 years’ experience researching Holocaust era property claims and advising non-profit organizations that represent survivors and heirs. Since 2001, she has been the Executive Director for Europe for the Commission for Art Recovery, where she pressed European countries to change how they identify and publicize potentially looted art and has worked on looted art litigation in numerous countries. Ms. Peresztegi also practices law in Budapest, including representing claimants seeking the return of artwork, and is licensed to practice law in New York and Paris. She is a member of the Working Group on Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Cultural Property of the Advisory Council of the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) and has taught in ESLI’s Provenance Research Training Program.
Ms. Lillie, who has studied art history and will soon complete her Ph.D. in modern history, has worked in Vienna since 2001 researching Holocaust-era looted art for private individuals seeking restitution, government bodies, and cultural institutions. She has worked for the Jewish Community of Vienna, documenting Nazi-era looted assets to prepare for restitution negotiations, processing art claims, and supervising payments to Austrian Holocaust victims. She has authored numerous scholarly papers and articles relating to restitution and looted art.