Lauder: Germany should make public all suspicious art

BERLIN (JTA) — Germany should publicize all suspicious art collections so possible heirs can find long lost works, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said.

Prompted by the recent revelation of a huge collection of art work hidden for decades in the Munich apartment of collector Cornelius Gurlitt, Lauder in a statement issued Wednesday urged Germany to create a commission to examine all public collections for looted art.

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Lauder also said the statute of limitations on Nazi-era looting crimes should be voided. Currently, only the crime of murder has no statute of limitations for prosecution in Germany.

More than 1,400 works were confiscated from Gurlitt nearly two years ago in the course of an investigation for tax evasion, in a case that came to light earlier this month. The state prosecutor in Augsburg agreed last week to publish photos and titles of 590 works in the collection on Germany’s official website for identifying lost art.  So far, 25 works have been put online.

The prosecutor confirmed on Tuesday that works proven to have been looted during the Nazi era would be returned to their original owners or heirs, while those obtained legally will remain with the collector. So far, that includes works by a relative of Gurlitt.

Gurlitt has said that his collection was legally obtained by his father, the Nazi-era collector Hildebrand Gurlitt. He has demanded its return.

But prosecutors and experts have said that many of the works are of suspicious origin, though it may be too late for legal solutions. Some have suggested that appeals to Gurlitt on a moral basis may be necessary.

Lauder said the statute of limitations was “never intended to deal with massive wartime looting perpetrated in the course of genocide. …Anyone in Germany who possesses artworks whose provenance during the Nazi period is doubtful should therefore be required to make his holdings public.”

In addition to the new task force researching the Gurlitt collection, Germany has agencies dealing with overall provenance research:  the Coordinating Council for Lost Art; the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, which distributes funds to museums undertaking provenance research;  the Center for Provenance Research and Investigation; and the Limbach Commission, which tries to mediate in disputes between potential heirs and current owners of artworks.