German art collectors face a painful past: Do I own Nazi loot?


BERLIN — After World War II, few Germans with large art holdings cared to dig through their collections for signs of Nazi looting.

And because private collections were off-limits to those trying to find stolen art, works of unexamined provenance have hung in family homes and office hallways for decades, the stories of how they came to be. acquired are often vague, inconsistent or simply not discussed.

But as one generation of Germans died and gave their art to the next, a number of people with large collections and troubled consciences stepped forward to investigate what they possessed.

“I don’t want stolen goods hanging on the wall, it’s quite simple,” said Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who hired a researcher 15 years ago to examine the collection inherited from his tobacco industrialist father Philipp. F. Reemtsma.

Now, to persuade more collectors to undertake such research, the German government has announced that it will begin to subsidize such efforts, using money from a national fund of 3.4 million euros (about 3. $6 million).

“With this new funding, we will be able to support people by helping them discover how these objects entered their families,” said Uwe Hartmann, head of provenance research at the German Lost Art Foundation. The foundation reviews applications from art owners seeking help and awards grants of up to €300,000 (approximately $320,000).

Until now, public money had only helped to search for looted objects from German museums and libraries. The decision in February to broaden the scope came after the 2013 revelation of Cornelius Gurlitt’s art treasure in his Munich apartment.

Mr. Gurlitt had inherited the art from his father, a dealer for the Nazis who bought works that had been seized from Jewish homes or sold under duress by Jews desperate to flee. The case has highlighted the issue of defiled art in private collections, raising the specter that thousands of looted works of art could be hiding in attics and basements.

The German government team studying Gurlitt’s works identified five that were looted or sold under duress, and 153 others they suspect were looted.

Mr Hartmann said in recent years he has seen a resurgence of interest from private collectors keen to understand the origins of their art. He estimates that reviews of a dozen collections are in progress or have been completed. His office had long received the occasional package in the mail, containing an item the sender assumed was stolen, he said. Since the Gurlitt case, parcels are more frequent, he says.

“We received four miniature paintings with a note saying, ‘We know our father was in Ukraine,'” Mr Hartmann said. But all he could do, he said, was send them back and post photographs on, an online database that contains art images whose provenance is not known. Claire.

Some owners didn’t need Gurlitt’s discovery to pique their curiosity. In 2006, a few years after Mr Reemtsma hired provenance researcher Silke Reuther to study his collection, Bettina Horn, who runs a foundation that manages the art collection of her husband, Rolf Horn, who died in 1995, made likewise.

“It’s an ongoing duty,” Ms Horn said. “If this generation does not complete it, it will fall on the next one.”

Ms. Reuther found no looted works in either collection, although she noted large gaps in the provenance of many works.

But family-owned Dr. Oetker, which makes baked goods and other foodstuffs, has identified four looted paintings in its possession out of about 200 searched so far in an effort that dates back several years.

One of the works, ‘The Portrait of Adriaen Moens’, was painted in 1628 by Anthony van Dyck and hung for many years in a quiet hallway leading to the executive suite of Dr Oetker’s modest red brick headquarters in Bielefeld. It depicts Moens, an Antwerp theologian, in profile, with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee and a voluminous black robe, resting his fingers lightly on the yellowed pages of a large leather-bound book.

The society announced this year that it was returning the painting to Marei von Saher, the sole heir of Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch dealer who fled the Nazis in 1940. The portrait was forcibly sold and passed into the hands of the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann. Goering, the Dutch government and a London Old Masters dealer before being bought in 1956 by Rudolf-August Oetker, then managing director of Dr Oetker.

The search for the original owner is part of a long process to confront a dark chapter in the company’s history that Mr. Oetker’s children were only able to begin after his death in 2007. Untersturmführer in the Waffen-SS, Mr. Oetker took over the business in 1944 from his father-in-law, a committed Nazi. After the war, he defended the company’s record during the Third Reich and revered the achievements of his father-in-law.

But Dr. Oetker had taken advantage of his SS and Wehrmacht connections and “Aryanized” Jewish property, as a close study by three historians revealed. After the study was published in 2013, “it became clear that a second step would require a scientific approach to researching the provenance of objects in the art collection,” said Jörg Schillinger, historian and spokesperson for Dr. Oetker.

In October, Dr. Oetker announced that he had hired a researcher to investigate the company’s collection of silver and gold antiquities, porcelain and several hundred paintings, many of which were acquired by Mr. Oetker. In addition to the van Dyck, he announced that he would return “Spring in the Mountains”, by Hans Thoma, to the heirs of Hedwig Ullmann, a Jewish art collector who fled Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Given German law, the heirs of the original Jewish owners must rely on the goodwill of private collectors. While museums are bound by Washington’s International Principles – which require them to find “fair and equitable solutions” with heirs if they identify Nazi-looted artwork in their possession – these principles do not apply. do not apply to corporate collections or individuals, and the law protects current holders of stolen artwork with statutes of limitations and other defenses.

But Mr Hartmann, who helps run the government’s funding scheme, said the current generation is more aware of the issue of restitution and willing to talk about it.

“In some cases,” he said, “it was a topic that was taboo when their parents were alive, and the kids only want to talk about it now.”

Sebastian Neubauer, 31, said he was faced with an unresolved family history when his grandmother died. He and other relatives inherited “Spanish Dancer”, a painting by Gustave Doré that his grandmother had adored. She had always described it as an old family treasure, the one she saved when the family home in Leipzig was hit by a bomb in 1943 and she took the painting and several other items in a suitcase.

But after his death, Mr. Neubauer’s family discovered a different story in letters sent by his father during World War II. His father wrote that he had acquired the painting for free in Paris and described it as compensation for the art the family had lost in the Leipzig bombing.

“It’s pretty clear it was stolen,” said Neubauer, a political scientist studying for his doctorate. “The story of the suitcase was true, but the painting was not there.”

The question for Mr. Neubauer, his mother and his aunt was: “Do we want to be complicit in this crime?” Do we want to take advantage of it? he said. “No. We all agreed that we wanted to return it to the owner. We didn’t want to keep it.”

He contacted dozens of government officials and museums, and Mr. Hartmann’s team listed “Spanish Dancer” on

No one claimed the painting, which has been on the site since 2009.

“I think there are so many more stories like this, so many lost items hiding in people’s homes,” Neubauer said. “There’s a dead silence hanging over it.”


Comments are closed.