Beautiful Loot: Continuing Efforts to Repatriate Nazi-Spoiled Art


Finders, keepers? Who are the rightful owners of Nazi looted art: is it the heirs of the artworks or the current owners who bought the art in good faith? Should there be a statute of limitations in order to protect the expectations of private collectors, gallery owners and museum directors, so that claims are brought in a timely fashion? How long should the statute of limitations be, given that it is extremely difficult for heirs to locate the stolen art, especially when it is not in the public eye and could be hidden anywhere in the world?

All of these difficult issues surfaced during Art Law Professor Terry Martin’s lecture on Nazi-spoiled art last Friday. Professor Martin is the Henry N. Ess Librarian and Professor of Law. His research interests include international trade in cultural property and digital forms of scholarly communication. This talk was the second in a series of faculty lunchtime talks on the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials. These informal discussions lead up to the conference on November 3rd and 4th, entitled “Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremburg for International Law, Human Rights, & Education.” Registration is free for full time students.

Two of the greatest art looters in history, Hermann Goering and Alfred Rosenberg, were convicted and executed at the Nuremburg trials, not because of their cultural property offenses, but because of their crimes against people. The looted art from this era, however, remains a large piece of unfinished business.

Even before Hitler invaded neighboring countries, he had had an eye on their art, because he believed that German art had been plundered over time and needed to be repatriated back to Germany. The Kummel report was made at this time by three leading art historians; they produced a three-volume report listing all German art that was held in foreign countries since the 16th century. It became a picking list for military units after the war began, serving Hitler’s arts policy, which was a centerpiece of his regime.

Hitler was actually a failed aspiring artist who attacked what he thought of as “degenerate art,” meaning all modernist art, especially expressionist, abstract, cubist and surrealist art. Hitler found modern art to be disturbing, and his government promoted a “true” German art of realistic genre paintings which were easy to understand, while his inner circle also revered the Old Masters whom they regarded as embodying the true Aryan spirit. Professor Martin noted that, ironically, German realism which was highly regarded by Hitler’s and his inner circle might seem a little pornographic in hindsight.

In July 1937, the Nazi party mounted an exhibition of confiscated art from different museums around the country entitled “Degenerate Art” in order to purge these blasphemous pieces from museums and to show the public an official condemnation of modern art. The exhibition, which tried to make a mockery of modern art, proved to be quite popular and ended up attracting five times as many people as the “Great German Art Exhibition” of Nazi-approved art which was showcased at the same time.

In July 1939, the same commission that had organized the exhibition ordered about 5000 paintings and works on paper to be burned in a bonfire. Many other works were auctioned off for absurdly cheap prices, and some eventually landed in American museums.

Immediately following the war, restituting art works to their countries of origin was not a top priority. Countries returned works that were easy to trace, held a very short window for claims to be made, and sold off unclaimed pieces. Years of inaction regarding restitution of art from World War II was broken about ten years ago, with the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust, the popularity of Schindler’s List, the creation of online art registries, and sealed archives being reopened.

A number of restitution of Nazi-looted cases now regularly appear in newspapers, and Professor Martin introduced six specific case studies. Through them, the only thing that remains clear is that, legally, the procedure involved in these restitution cases are very complex. General questions which arise when considering the complexity of these cases include: How should the passage of time affect the rights of the parties? How should the parties prove due diligence/ownership history? What efforts should the owner continually make? Where should the cases be tried, since the works of art have passed through so many jurisdictions, both domestic and international? What law should apply? How should the press be involved, since it clearly influences strategies? Can governmental support be found, from nations like the U.S., which has taken a more direct interest lately?

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