The visit to the exhibition that exhibits these days the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin is undoubtedly a pleasant artistic experience, but at the same time produces a certain uneasiness. The Monet, the Munch or the Nolde are wonderful, but they are part of a collection under suspicion. Cornelius Gurlitt inherited 1,566 paintings and objects from his father, an art dealer in the pay of the Nazis, who allegedly participated in the large-scale confiscation of works of art to the Jews. Research that tries to identify what Gurlitt's works are art confiscated by the Nazis And which ones do not, it advances at a slow pace.
Maybe the case of Gurlitt, which came to light five years ago, is the best known, but it is not the only one. When 20 years of the so-called Washington principles are fulfilled, those who laid the foundations for the restitution of art stolen from the Jews, the balance indicates that there is much to do and a short time, before the witnesses of the Holocaust and their memory die. In museums and collectors' warehouses across Europe there are still thousands of works of art stolen, according to the experts in restitution, who have gathered this week in Berlin. They agree that the digitization of museum funds is one of the keys for victims and heirs to locate works that were confiscated.
"This is probably the last chance. We can not turn our back on the survivors of the Holocaust, "US diplomat Stuart Eizenstat, who organized the conference two decades ago in Washington, called this week in Berlin. The head of Culture of the German Government, Monika Grütters, delved into the need to complete the process of restitution. "We owe it to the people whose life was snatched by National Socialism. The memory can sensitize us against totalitarianism at a time when we are witnessing a brutalization of the language and in which the Nazi crimes are relativized, "he said during the conference.
The problem is that beyond good intentions, the restitution of works plundered 80 years ago ends up often stuck in a bureaucratic and judicial tangle. The event was inaugurated in Berlin by Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and founder of the Commission for the Recovery of Art, who assured that only 10% of the institutions involved have started the search.
Washington's principles are not legally binding and were endorsed by 44 countries that apply them very unevenly in their museums and public collections. They were enunciated to promote the return of the nearly 600,000 works of art that are estimated to have been confiscated or forced by the Nazis to sell at a bargain price. Hungary, Poland, Spain, Russia Argentina and Brazil are countries that according to Eizenstat drag their feet when it comes to devoting efforts and resources to the refunds.
Willi Korte, restitution specialist, explains that there are two stages. The first, between 1933 and 1938, in which the Jews sold their works at a bargain price because they needed the money to leave Germany and pay the rate demanded by the Nazis. And another, from 1938, when the regime begins to confiscate in the countries they occupy. "Most of the works did not end up in the Nazi museums, but they sold them and they were lost in the international art circuit," explains Korte.
The great Expressionist or Impressionist masters reappear anywhere in the world because they have a global interest. Those of German painters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have usually stayed in the country.
In Germany, the country that bears the greatest historical responsibility, refunds are not moving at a good pace either. In part, the experts explain, because the decentralization of its 5,000 museums, which depend on the federated states and the cities, complicates any joint effort. According to the Magdeburg research center a total of 5,750 works of art have been returned in Germany as well as some 11,670 books and documents. Grütters explained that they have tripled the funding for the research and that between 2008 and 2017 they allocated 31 million euros to the restitution.
The idea now of the German authorities is to create now a single portal of help and a database that unifies and allows the access to the public of the data of the tables. Because often, the relatives of the victims run into a race of bureaucratic and linguistic obstacles when they want to access, for example, museum funds.
Willi Korte, jurist and well-known researcher of works usurped by the Nazis. It has been 30 years dedicated to clarify the past and it is clear that the biggest problem is what in the jargon they call "the lack of transparency", as he explains by telephone to this newspaper from the United States. "It can only work if museums make their collections public on the Internet. We do not know what works are investigating. It is very difficult to know what happens inside German museums, "says Korte.
Named as the art detective by the German press, Korte is the visible head of the case of the well-known gallerist Max Stern, forced to liquidate his gallery in Düsseldorf when the Nazis decreed its closure. One of the works reappeared in an auction house in 2007 and since then, it fights to recover the 228 paintings of the lot denounced to Interpol and before the FBI. Korte used the US military law of 1949, which states that what is sold under duress amounts to confiscation.
Just a few weeks ago, one of the pieces came to light in Italy, another in Cologne, but he lost track again, because he says, European laws are much less favorable than American laws for heirs. "It is difficult to recover works of art. Unlike a building, art travels fast around the world and the laws of different countries come into play ". Therefore, experts agree that not only public museums, but also private collectors and auction houses have to get involved.
But if something made the Berlin conference clear, it is that new airs also blow in the world of art. What in the same way that the colonial past of art begins to encourage restitution, the victims of Nazi plundering may end up recovering their works. "Museums, but also private collectors are measured today also by how they treat the history of their collections," Grütters said.