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How Nazi-looted art is finding its way back to its owners

World War II ended almost 75 years ago, but works of art confiscated by the Nazis are still regularly unearthed by major auction houses, which contribute actively to their restitution.

How Nazi-looted art is finding its way back to its owners
A branch of Christie's auction house in Munich. Photo: DPA

French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir's “Esquisse de paysage (Deux femmes dans le jardin des Collettes a Cagnes),” which depicts two women in a garden, changed hands no less than seven times since German police seized it in September 1941. Four of those times were at public auction.

But it wasn't until 2013, when the painting was being considered for a sale at Christie's in New York and the auction house flagged it as suspicious, that a descendant of the original owner was located and ultimately had the work restituted, a word commonly used to describe returned works of art.

The auction house traced the work's ownership back to Alfred Weinberger, who had stored his art collection in a bank vault when he fled Paris at the war's outset.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI returned the painting – created in 1919, the same year Renoir died – to Weinberger's granddaughter Sylvie Sulitzer in September at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage. A combination of factors over the past 20 years – political, technological and generational – have facilitated the return of stolen pieces.

“Interest in the Nazi era spoliation of art only really became of international interest in the mid-nineties,” Christie's international restitution director Monica Dugot told AFP.

After years of inertia, 44 countries agreed in 1998 to the Washington Principles to find and, if possible, return works stolen by the Nazis.

SEE ALSO: Art reparation: Colonial ghosts haunt German and other European museums

Major auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's have also adapted and formed dedicated teams since the late 1990s.

“They play a very major role,” said Wesley Fisher, research director for the Claims Conference, a group created in 1951 whose tasks include working to return stolen possessions.

“There's a shifting generation. People who had these looted art works privately are passing away and their descendants then decide to sell the works.”

Lost art databases

The declassification of numerous documents, the rise of the internet and digitalization have all given access to exhaustive and essential information for museums, art dealers and auction houses.

The Art Loss Register and the ERR database of art objects plundered by the Nazis, based on archives kept by the fascist political party, are the most exhaustive repositories of information – but dozens of other resources exist. In Magdeburg, there is also a “Lost Art Database“, an online directory of confiscated art works. 

It has been operating since 1994 as part of a government agency which traces both Soviet-seized and Nazi-seized treasures.

Situated on a quiet, leafy bank of the Elbe River, the agency (the German Lost Art Foundation) is purposely situated in eastern Germany, where Soviet soldiers snatched the majority of art objects as so-called trophy art at the end of World War II.

In 2013, tax authorities famously found that a reclusive Munich man and son of a Nazi official had kept a World War II art collection of 1,500 stolen art pieces – many by the likes of Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – in his apartment.

A team of German investigators consequently assembled an online exhibition of the masterpieces on the online database – a way, as with all major “lost art” finds, of tracking down the owners.

When the first 25 images were uploaded, the online database received 4.8 million views in 24 hours, according to the museum's director. People around the world clamoured to view the art, either to see if it had belonged to their ancestors or out of curiosity.

The works which were not claimed went on display in museums in Bern and Bonn in 2017.

Entrance to the Lost Art Gallery in Magdeburg. Photo: Rachel Stern

'Minimize the risk'

Sotheby's head of restitution Lucian Simmons said the auction house researches every work that comes through its hands and was created before 1945, be it a painting, furniture, silverware or carpet.

The goal is to “minimize the risk that Sotheby's accidentally sells an art work which was looted in World War II and never litigated back,” he added.

The laws vary between different countries. In Germany, the return of objects is no longer mandatory after 30 years under the civil code, while in France, works of arts cannot be taken from state collections.

“Auction houses generally do a better job than art dealers as a whole because auction houses have to advertise what they are selling and what they do is known publicly,” Fisher explained.

If there is any doubt as to a piece's origins, it is now standard practice for the auction house to keep it, regardless of whether the official owner agrees.

“For Sotheby's, this is not necessarily a legal issue. It's more of an ethical and a moral issue,” Simmons said.

“What I also have to explain is that even if the painting is theoretically clean under the law in one country, it doesn't mean that people will bid on it in an auction room if there's an outstanding World War II claim.”

But he stressed that litigation is “very rare” because Sotheby's actively tries to resolve such situations amicably and through negotiations.

However, some auction houses that refuse to sell a suspect work of art or return it to the collector who tasked them with selling it sometimes face competing claims — both from the official owner and the descendants of the original owner whose collection was confiscated.

In such cases, the auction houses turn to the authorities, as they did with the Renoir.

A source close to the matter said the collector ultimately gave in – insisting on his ownership could have led to legal proceedings.

“Auction houses are important and instrumental in finding just and fair solutions according to the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art,” said Imke Gielen, an attorney at specialized German law firm von Trott zu Solz Lammek.

“One has to assume that the majority of art works looted during the Nazi-period are today in private hands and will only become known if private holders consign them for sale.”

With the progressive disappearance of a generation of amateur post-war collectors, a large amount of paintings that could fall under this category are coming on the market, as seen in the recent fall auctions in New York.

“There are art dealers who prefer to keep the tradition of the art market, which is secrecy,” Fisher said, also referring to smaller auction houses.

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Eight online events in Germany not to miss in February 2021

With tougher Covid-19 restrictions now in place in Germany, travelling and socialising have become increasingly limited. So we’ve compiled a list of fun events for you to enjoy from the comfort of your own home!

Eight online events in Germany not to miss in February 2021
The entrance to Berlin's Alte Nationalgallerie. Photo: DPA

Here are some events and ongoing activities to look out for in February.

Berlin Philharmonic returns to the 1920s, Saturday, February 13th 2021 at 6:45pm

Berliner Philharmoniker is streaming the 1920s First Symphony Opera, one of German composer Kurt Weill’s early performances. 

As described by the orchestra, this piece’s music is “captivating and triumphant”. The music was composed in 1927 and its story takes place in ancient Greece. 

Final Girls Film Festival, February 4th at 1pm to February 8th at 11:59pm

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival showcases horror cinema that’s directed, written, or produced by women and non-binary filmmakers. 

The festival is committed to creating space for female voices and visions, whether monstrous, heroic or some messy combination of the two, in the horror genre.

Berliner Festspiele, Strong Pieces Stream, Until March 

Berliner Festspiele is showing two of their top picks.

“The Misanthrope” is a Molière’s classic staged by Anne Lenk, and translated by Jürgen Gosch and Wolfgang Wiens. It’s been called a straightforward delight with an exceptional concentration of language and wit. 

And “Man appears in the Holocene” is staged by Alexander Giesches after Max Frisch’s novella about mankind’s Sisyphus-struggle against their own doom.

König Gallerie, 'Dreaming of Alligator Head' by Claudia Comte, January 21st 2021- January 12th 2022

With her digital solo exhibition Dreaming of Alligator Head, Comte creates a scenario that is impossible in reality: She plants her underwater sculpture park in the König Gallerie app. The digital visitors inside experience a fascinating underwater world without having to go on a physical journey. 

Comte also seeks to raise awareness of marine environments and ask how an artistic object can change the world. Check out the exhibition on the König Gallerie app. 

Galerie Tanja Wagner, How to be human, until February 13th 2021 

Celebrating 10 years of the opening of her contemporary art gallery, Tanja Wagner’s exhibition, How to Be Human showcases her personal favourite works of artists she has collaborated with.

It includes Grit Richter’s famous work, Das Letzte Wort, as well as other works that in Wagner’s opinion, seek to explore the question ’How to Be Human’. 

Alte Nationalgalerie Online, until further notice

The Alte Nationalgalerie was set up as a “sanctuary for art and science”. The idea for a national gallery was realised after the donation of a collection of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich to the Prussian state. 

Since Covid-19 has made it difficult to visit the otherwise very popular museum, the gallery has made its collection available online until further notice. 

Naturkundemuseum Berlin, Beats and Bones Podcast and Livestream, Mondays at 7pm, until further notice 

Berlin’s Naturkundemuseum is offering a podcast series where nature experts from the museum answer questions about the diversity of nature, evolution, the formation of the earth, climate change and insect death.

They explore questions such as “Who knows our earliest ancestors were 480 million-year-old jawless fish?” Or, ‘What is the Achilles heel of Tyrannosaurus rex’? 

Catch new episodes every Monday on Instagram, along with a live stream through the museum with experts accompanying you through the collection and exhibition. The previous episodes are available on Spotify as well as Youtube. 

Anne Frank Zentrum, All about Anne, until further notice 

The Anne Frank Zentrum's exhibition “All about Anne” is normally presented at Hackescher Markt in Berlin-Mitte. Since lockdown, the exhibition has been made available online. 

Its exhibition tells the story of Anne Frank's life and the time in which she lived. It also explains why her diary is so well-known today and shows that her thoughts are still relevant. 

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