28 February 2015

Are German museums in favor of restitution?

by Marc Masurovsky

By the looks of it, the answer is a qualified NO.

Let’s take a quick run-through at the track record of German institutions through the glare of the media since 2006. If some cases have fallen off the wagon, just blame the author. No one else.

Generally speaking, collections owned by noted art dealers and collectors like Alfred Flechtheim have continued to plague and embarrass German museums because many items illegally removed from those Jewish owners have entered these public collections.

In 2006, German museums complained that restitution procedures were too easy and that anyway most claims centered on auction house sales. What does that have to do with anything?
According to the LA Times, German museums asked the German government for help in funding provenance research because they had no money for such purposes and their staff seemingly could not be tasked to perform such duties.

Oh yes! museum directors asked that the discussion about restitution be more “businesslike.” Somehow, they felt inconvenienced by the emotional tone underlying claims for restitution. It’s hard to imagine why since claimants are heirs to victims of a genocide perpetrated by German state institutions against their families during the National Socialist period.

In 2007, the grumbling by German museums persisted over restitution rules.

In 2008, Culture Minister Bernd Neumann convened a meeting in Berlin with representatives of German museums, art experts, and individuals concerned with questions of restitution. Once again, museums requested more money for provenance research. However, some museum researchers spoke up and complained that they worked in isolation, were overwhelmed by the dizzying amount of work to do for institutions that were understaffed and underfunded.
In January 2009, an international Conference took place at the Jewish Museum of Berlin which focused the spotlight on the state of affairs both in Germany and elsewhere regarding restitution matters.

We are skipping through history here. In November 2013, the Gurlitt case exploded onto the international scene, taking by surprise everyone remotely interested in issues pertaining to looted art, to restitution, to Gemany's handling of its past.

Some commentators have gone as far as saying that the “handling of this Nazi legacy (entartete kunst) is a moral disaster.”

During that time, a restitution claim filed by the Montreal-based Max Stern Restitution Project, landed on the desk of the leadership of the City Museum of Dusseldorf over a painting by Wilhelm von Schadow which belonged to the late Max Stern. Contrary to most German museums, the leadership of the city Museum proved to be sympathetic to the request for restitution and endeavored to work closely with the Max Stern Project in order to resolve the claim favorably. An odd moment when one considers the general hostility that permeates the German museum world regarding restitution claims.

It could be that the Montreal-based restitution project which is housed at Concordia University, relies heavily on international law enforcement agencies to facilitate its requests for restitution. An interesting model to keep in mind.

While German museums were giving short shrift to Holocaust-era claimants, the German government appeared to encourage the repatriation of looted antiquities to Greece and Iraq. The same could not be said for African countries like Nigeria, Chad and Gabon. Neo-colonialist double-standard or geopolitics gone awry?
If you think we are being too harsh on the German government and its cultural institutions, they should not feel singled-out since a similar negative assessment appeared in the New York Times accusing American museums of rolling back the clock on restitution: stalling, balking, and disengaging from the restitution discussion. Fair or unfair?

2014 let in a bright light of hope when the museum of art of Wuppertal decided of its own accord with the support of the local city council to do the right thing and restitute a gorgeous painting by Caspar Netscher entitled “Lady with the Parrot—Dame mit Papagei”, an exceptional moment in the annals of restitution in Germany, a moment that should have heaped kudos on the director of the Wuppertal Museum, Gerhard Finckh, for his willingness to keep an open mind even if it meant losing one of the museum’s prized possessions. A gesture that was largely ignored by German and foreign journalists, commentators, restitution officials, and the like. So, we take this opportunity to applaud Mr. Finkh’s decision to restitute the Caspar Netscher painting to the heirs of a Belgian Jewish family, as a shining example of what can be done if one wills it to be done.

Note that the world did not come to an end and that the art market is still in operation.

However, the restitution enthusiasm was short-lived, the window closed and the room went dark. In August 2014, the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen rejected a restitution claim for a painting by Jacob Octhervelt.

In the midst of the Gurlitt mess, 2015 has not gotten off on a positive footing. Indeed, the so-called Guelph treasure has been the subject of a restitution claim whereby the German institution holding the so-called treasure which is worth quite a bit of money has refused to return it on grounds that there is no proof of a spoliation, let alone duress. The family has turned around and filed a lawsuit.

In the minds of restitution lawyers both in Germany and the United States, the Guelph treasure case puts the lie to German pledges to do what is needed to facilitate restitution to claimants.

As a result of the constantly evolving Cornelius Gurlitt scandal, in death as in life, German promises of passing laws eliminating statutes of limitations have not come to fruition.

In response to the savagery displayed in Syria and Irak against people and property, especially cultural property, Germany woke up to the fact that its territory is used as a major turnstile for the reselling of looted antiquities originating in that conflict. Monika Gruetters proposed that provenances be required for all cultural items entering or leaving Germany which apparently come from the Mideast. A great idea that is not favored by the German art market. Let’s see.

Will there be more funding for provenance research in Germany? A new center requested by Monika Gruetters has reorganized and expanded the provenance bureaucracy in Germany, the largest of its kind in the world, but it does not appear to be the ideal way of addressing the problem that plagues cultural institutions in Germany. As a model, the world is taking note, but wonders whether this is what we should NOT be doing when addressing the question of research and due diligence in museum collections.
Nevertheless, it is easy to criticize the German government when the rest of the world is not doing a bloody thing to move forward on questions of research, due diligence, improved conditions for filing and resolving claims and so forth and so on.

We are therefore duty bound to acknowledge that, in its particularly clumsy way, Germany has been trying to improve the climate regarding research into histories of ownership of objects that might have been looted and which are present in German state collections. An improvement that does not allay the underlying problem: how willing are German museums to restitute objects once conclusive or convincing proof has established the illicit nature of the object in a German public collection?

The answer to our initial question is still NO. Unless proven otherwise, the vast majority of German museums are still not inclined to restitute.
As they say in the United States, proof is in the pudding.