Art Law Report

Live from the Oscars! German Cultural Ministry Disparages Possible Inclusion of Jewish Member on Advisory Commission

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on March 3, 2016 at 11:10 AM

The New York Times reports today that Germany will pay for “at least” one more year of the Gurlitt Task Force, which recently concluded its initial term of appointment amidst criticism of the German government’s handling of the case. Taken as a whole, it is clear that real progress is not the goal, public relations is. Most shockingly, however, is that while apparently attending Oscar parties in California, Minister of Culture Monika Grütters categorically rejected recent suggestions (including from members of her own organization) that the Advisory Commission that issues recommendations about claims for looted art in German museums should include a member of the Jewish community. In perhaps the most tone-deaf statement of many to date, she said: “We did not do this, and for good reason,” because such member “would be the only voice who would be prejudiced.”

What? Think about that. The Minister of Culture of the Federal Republic of Germany rejects out of hand that a Jewish member of the Advisory Commission could be objective. All the other German members are apparently above reproach, but not a Jewish participant. The statement is even more ironic because the suggestion that the Advisory Commission add a member of the Jewish community was suggested by none other than Hermann Parzinger, President of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), which has relied on that very Advisory Commission’s recommendation not to return the Welfenschatz.

It is also an enormous disservice to the very constituency that she serves: the German public. The Ministry of Culture has spent the last three years devoting its energy to destroying the German art market with regressive legislation, engaging in Holocaust revisionism, and handling the Gurlitt affair as poorly as possible. These are its signature “achievements.”

The German and Bavarian handling of the Task Force is universally regarded as a fiasco. This is, as we have said and will reiterate every time it comes up, entirely distinct from the performance of the Task Force members, who have had to put up with such things as a final report issued in their name in a language that they don’t speak and without a chance to proofread it—before Grütters holds yet another self-congratulatory press conference announcing its “completion.” And it does not mean that the provenance research is easy of capable of quick resolution; it is not and inconclusive results are part of the business (see here for an excellent article by provenance researcher Tanja Bernsau on the topic after the Task Force report was released). But the German government lost any credibility or claim to the benefit of the doubt months and years ago. Yes, it is difficult to establish the provenance of a work on paper with no documentation. That difficulty can only be pleaded, however, after a concerted effort.

Instead, Grütters’s focus is on exhibiting the Gurlitt collection.  Think about that. The Ministry of Culture has contemptuously dismissed calls to return more works from the Gurlitt trove by arguing that it would risk returning art that was not stolen—something that the German government has never done, or even been accused of doing.  Taken at her word, then, Germany has no business exhibiting any of the collection until it knows to whom it belongs.  This is all the more so because, as reported in the Ausburger Allgemeine today (article in German),  the battle over Gurlitt’s will rages on, with two of the three opinions submitted to date supporting the argument by Gurlitt cousin Uta Werner that he was not capable of writing the will that left his collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern. If that position prevails, then Germany would be exhibiting Werner’s art—but without Werner’s permission.

Gurlitt, and the Welfenschatz, and the recent disgraceful treatment of the heirs of Alfred Flechtheim expose the fundamental problem: a lack of will. The goal should not be incremental improvement in responding to individual claimants, who have to have the information and resources to come to the museums in the first instance. The goal should be to remove any looted art from German museums. It is impossible to ascribe that goal to official policy at this point. Will that be expensive? Yes, but that is not an excuse. Instead, mindlessly repeating a commitment to “fair and just solutions” is treated as an accomplishment, without actually doing anything.

Grütters will reportedly meet with World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder on Friday. Lauder recently made perhaps the best speech in recent history on the topic of looted art, calling out precisely the absurdity that abounds:

Nazi crimes have always been quite clear.

But for many people and even major museums, when it comes to the question of the art, stolen art, something strange happens. People seem to look the other way.

We are told that, somehow, stolen art is more complicated. Somehow, its victims are not really victims, somehow, it’s ok when world famous museums have Nazi looted art on their walls. Somehow, if it’s in a public museum, the crime is cleansed. Some others say “let’s leave stolen art to the courts and the courts will provide justice based on law.”

Lauder stepped up that pressure today by criticizing the treatment by Swiss museums of so-called “flight goods”—property sold under the exigency of fleeing persecution. Perhaps the meeting will provide some enlightenment.

Topics: Ronald S. Lauder, Guelph Treasure, Gurlitt Task Force, Germany, Nazi-looted art, Gurlitt, Restitution, Monika Grütters, Raubkunst, Limbach Commission

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About the Blog

The Art Law Report provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the museum and visual arts communities. It is authored by Nicholas M. O'Donnell, partner in our Art & Museum Law Practice.

The material on this site is for general information only and is not legal advice. No liability is accepted for any loss or damage which may result from reliance on it. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.

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