Lauder urges Swiss museum not to accept Nazi art dealer's collection before probe is completed - World Jewish Congress

Lauder urges Swiss museum not to accept Nazi art dealer's collection before probe is completed

04 Nov 2014 Facebook Created with Sketch. Twitter Created with Sketch. Email Print
Lauder urges Swiss museum not to accept Nazi art dealer's collection before probe is completed

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The German version of this joint interview was published by the news magazine 'Der Spiegel' this week. The following is a translation of the original text.


German Culture Minister Grütters and Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, discuss the lessons of the Gurlitt case

SPIEGEL: Mr. Lauder, you know Germany well, you have been active here as a businessman and as president of the World Jewish Congress you are an active observer of this country. With the Gurlitt case, has something changed in your view?

Lauder: No, and actually I am grateful for this case. It is of equal importance for Jews in other countries than it is for all the people here in Germany. Without Cornelius Gurlitt, we wouldn’t sit here today. Without him, the Germans and the world wouldn’t know that here in this country there is still a lot of art which was looted during the Nazi era and has not yet been returned. Many believed that the Germans had done everything possible to deal with the fallout from their history.

SPIEGEL: But they haven’t?

Lauder: No, these art works are the last prisoners of World War II. Under the Nazi rule, 650,000 works were stolen. We know this because Nazi Germany kept very detailed records. And a lot was returned, but today there are 6,000 museums in Germany and it is very likely that a lot can still be found there. Only 285 museums have even started to check their holdings.

SPIEGEL: Why only so few?

Monika Grütters and Ronald S. Lauder at a rally in Berlin, September 2014Lauder: In many museums I’m sure they know that they have looted art. They don’t want to risk having to restitute works. What can be done? Minister Grütters has become active, in a way, she has picked up the keys to open these museums. The question is: Will these museums cooperate? One should also ask the question: Who will be in charge of researching all the holdings in these museums.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Grütters, you took office as Culture Minister in December 2013, a month after the first publications about Cornelius Gurlitt. A complex and incredible case.

Grütters: The case is spectacular, and one could feel it straight away. Since then, we have become a bit more sober when looking at it. It is true, the case was not handled systematically at the beginning. But at the federal level, we then took reasonable decisions. Together with Bavaria, we appointed the task force. And to reply to Mr. Lauder: When I took office, I knew that the responsibility of the State to shed light onto this matter is much bigger than what hitherto had been recognized. Although Germany had already started this work: a center for provenance research was put in place, in 2003 the Limbach Commission was added which can make recommendations in disputed legal cases, then there is the Lost Art database in which suspected looted art works are published, and finally a coordination office whose purpose it is to create more transparency in the search for looted art. Obviously, all that was not enough. I have now trebled funds available at the federal level to six million euro, and with our new foundation we are strengthening and improving current structures in order to make them more effective.

SPIEGEL: You are talking about your German Center for Lost Cultural Goods, a foundation which you just put on track. You are combining existing institutions and initiatives. Is that enough?

Grütters: This was necessary, but there is more to it. The tasks of the center will be expanded significantly. And there is a rapidly growing branch of art history: provenance research. But of course for that we need competence. That’s why we want to create foundation chairs at universities to strengthen international cooperation and professional training. The fact that we, together with all states and the three federations of the municipalities, have managed to set up a foundation for provenance research in a mere seven months sends a clear signal. The Gurlitt case has changed Germany.

SPIEGEL: The embarrassment was enormous, and the pressure from abroad, too.

Grütters: That was not the only factor. Here, comprehension has grown as well. The initiative to act was taken by us. And the foundation is set to be operational already on 1 January 2015.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Lauder, do you think this is sufficient?

Lauder: It is a good first step.

SPIEGEL: Not more?

Lauder: Many key players have given their backing for the foundation, but the real question is: Who will work in the foundation and what powers will it have? Who will go into the museums? People on the outside don’t know in which drawers they have to look, and the people in the museums are often not trained to do provenance research.

SPIEGEL: So what should be done?

Lauder: The British are doing the right thing. They document every piece of suspicious art they have on the internet so that everybody can see what’s there.

SPIEGEL: In Germany, there is a database in which museums can register suspected works.

Lauder: But only a minority of museums does it. That’s why nobody doing research for looted art from the outside can make progress. We have a lot of records about missing works, but we don’t know what is located where. Now, where are these pictures? In the basements and storage rooms of the museums? I think so.

SPIEGEL: How can you get the museums to do more?

Lauder: You have to sanction museums who literally hide their art. What you need in this country, in my opinion, are around 100 experts of who each supervises 60 museums and who work together with the respective experts in the museums. I don’t want to create the impression that we want to hunt the museums, but for us Jews, this is an important issue, and we should address this final chapter of confronting the Nazi past, the search for looted art, together.

SPIEGEL: You have back a law on looted art that lifts statutes of limitations. Ms. Grütters, there was such a proposal from Bavaria which failed in the Federal Council. What now?

Grütters: I am in talks with Justice Minister Heiko Maas to discuss if we can have statutes of limitations in the case of looted art that are different from what is currently enshrined in civil law. We are currently examining different ideas. Restitution models that we previously being proposed are often ineffective because after such a long time it is difficult to prove ownership. As you can imagine, after 80 years it is laborious or even impossible to objectively verify the basis of a transaction. Even in cases where there is goodwill on both sides it will be hard to reconstruct something like this. But this is about more than legal procedures or questions of proof.

SPIEGEL: What else is it about?

Grütters: It is about improving moral awareness. We need to become more empathic. It is about more than just material justice; this can be done. We need more sensitivity about the lives of these people and for the continued suffering of the victims. That is the main precondition for our coexistence. History can’t just be dealt with.

Lauder: But Minister Grütters, the legal basis is very important. From an American point of view, it is the most important thing. Americans believe that German museums are hiding behind German law as it doesn’t force them to do anything. In America, people are happy about the foundation in Magdeburg, but at the same time they remain nervous because the German law doesn’t not require a real check of the holdings, it even makes it more difficult.

Grütters: With respect, but I disagree. Our laws do not prevent museums from checking provenances. On the contrary: I have ordered the federal museums to include in each annual report a passage about the state of play regarding provenance research. Museums must – and will – in future be held to account with respect to dealing with the history of their collections. In order to change something in museums that benefit from public funds, there has to be a political will in the first place. Mine is very pronounced. We also decided to raise the funds so that no museums can come and say provenance research will financially overburden it. The legal situation is problematic with respect to private individuals who can hide behind the law. There, questions regarding statutes of limitations are legitimate, and this is indeed a difficult field. Although we have in this country a center for provenance research, it has not been able to deal with private applicants.
SPIEGEL: There were private collectors who wanted to check the provenance of their art through this center?

Grütters: There were requests from private individuals. Therefore, we have expanded the role of the center. The German Centre Lost Cultural Goods is explicitly there for private owners, too. And awareness has increased, too. I think you cannot really enjoy having looted art hanging in your living room, or in your collection. It is a question of moral responsibility to search for clarity in cases of doubt and to seek just solutions.

SPIEGEL: How do you propose to deal with the rejectionist position of museums and get them to more act quickly with respect to provenance research, as Mr. Lauder urges?

Grütters: The impression that things are moving slowly is alas not wrong. A certain reluctance on the part of the museums can still be observed. But it is intolerable that looted art is still being kept in German museums. Therefore, we need a wholehearted commitment to shed light into this. The federal government is acting more forcefully than ever, is appealing, is asking for reporting obligations to be met. This sets the benchmark for all museums.

SPIEGEL: Some even want the task force, which was set up the government, to become more active.

Grütters: It is active, but the task is difficult and the expectations are high. Hence there is sometimes disappointment.

Scientific researchers complain that they don’t get access to documents, e.g. to old account books. Then there are questions of privacy protection, which can legally only be dealt with sufficiently after the legacy has been dealt with. This is why we have an interest that Gurlitt’s last will is executed as quickly as possible.

Lauder: The museum in Bern, which is to inherit everything, would be crazy to accept this bequest.


Cornelius GurlittLauder: Let’s talk about the father, about Hildebrand Gurlitt. Pretty much every art work which he as one of four Nazi art traders bought either came from Jewish ownership or from German museums. The Kunstmuseum Bern, which is set to inherit everything, will be faced with many lawsuits, because whatever Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired he did not acquire because of his hard work but because he sold off Jewish art or Modern Art banned from German museums. That’s how he made a profit.

If the museum in Switzerland accepts this bequest, it will open a Pandora’s Box and trigger an avalanche of lawsuits. With German museums, perhaps, but certainly with the heirs of the Jewish owners. So, let Bern accept this bequest. We’d be more than happy because it would open Switzerland to our researchers and lawyers.

SPIEGEL: This is a threat...

Lauder: Bern would do damage to itself and the country if they accepted the pictures before their provenance has been checked. They would become a museum of looted art. One more thing: The owners don’t always want restitution, but they primarily want their history and their claims recognized. This is a historic opportunity: Germany has done so much in the past seven decades. Why should this country now suddenly because of this affair with art appear in a bad light? Let’s close this chapter. The German museums are full of great art; if they return the few works we’re talking about here, nothing would change this fact. Only recently the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe discovered seven art works which had been taken from Jewish owners. This find means a lot to us. Other museums seem to mysteriously lose old documents. That’s why the center in Magdeburg is so important. But the budget is too small. You, Ms. Grütters, are talking about six million euro which you want to provide. It should be 10 to 20 million.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Grütters, can you explain to us and to Mr. Lauder what exactly is being negotiated with Bern?

Grütters: It is correct: the federal government and the state of Bavaria are in talks with Bern. I am there to represent the federal level. I ask for your understanding that we have agreed confidentiality. Only the result counts in this case. The agreement with Mr. Gurlitt in which he guaranteed to allow fair and just solutions based on the Washington Principles is still valid. All parties concerned stick by this agreement, including Bern. I am convinced that we will find a good and reasonable solution.
SPIEGEL: For the time being, those pictures whose provenance is unclear are said to remain in Germany to allow for further research. However, the Foundation Council of the museum in Bern apparently wants to take over immediately the part of the collection which is Modern Art that Hildebrand Gurlitt was able to purchase from German museums in the esthetic cleansing campaign ‘Degenerate Art’. The question is if this part of the bequest doesn’t actually belong to Germany as it is politically and artistically a relevant part of German history.

Grütters: I don’t want to prejudge our negotiations. That would be inappropriate. But you are asking the right questions, and experts here and there are asking them, too.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Lauder, you own a museum in New York which a short while ago highlighted the sale of modernity by the Nazis in an exhibition entitled ‘Looted Art’. The Nazi dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt kept a lot of things for himself.

Lauder: And these works should return to the very museums from which they were taken.

Grütters: For me, it’s important that we accept our history, and that includes that the Nazis took a lot of pictures from German museums. You can’t undo history just like that. That aspect is equally ambitious than to just engage in restitution. And in this particular case, German museums were also victims. This aspect also has to be told, no matter where.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Grütters, Mr. Lauder, thank you very much for this talk.


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