Looted Nazi art: Germany’s ‘conspiracy of silence’

Max Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer had already been sold by the time German police discovered the art cache

Max Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer had already been sold by the time German police discovered the art cache

Restitution experts have condemned the German authorities’ handling of the discovery of a hoard of Nazi-looted artwork in a Munich flat.

Investigators faced a furious backlash after they admitted the haul of almost 1,400 paintings had been found two years ago and kept secret until a German magazine reported the case last weekend.

The authorities were also attacked for refusing to publish a full list of the items recovered — hampering attempts to reunite the works with Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

Jewish art specialists raised fears that German investigators could have been involved in a “conspiracy of silence” and accused the German authorities of “deliberately obstructing attempts to reunite the victims of the Nazis with their stolen property”.

Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said: “The concealment in the past two years is as great a concern as the theft itself.

“The information is a matter of huge public interest and concern. The German government has a clear moral and ethical duty.

“The looting itself was declared a war crime. The authorities must commit to being open, transparent and credible.”

David Glasser, chairman and chief executive of the Ben Uri Collection of art of Jewish origin, said the authorities should have done more to “alert families that it was likely one of their heirlooms had been discovered, and brought some closure to a 75-year-old wound.

“This was a huge opportunity for the Bavarian authorities to demonstrate a moral leadership where the rights of the person should take equal if not greater priority than the state. It appears to be an opportunity lost.”

Valued at around £1 billion, the 121 framed pieces and 1,258 unframed works include paintings by masters including Picasso, Renoir and Matisse.

Reinhard Nemetz, the prosecutor leading the investigation, confirmed on Tuesday that exact details of all the items would not be revealed publicly.

He said authorities would “prefer people with a claim to get in touch with us to say which picture they’re missing, rather than the other way round”.

One observer pointed out that this is “like inviting someone to lunch but refusing to name the restaurant. If people don’t know what the hoard contains, they can’t know if it contains their stolen art ”.

Ms Webber criticised the lack of attention given to reuniting the art with its original owners.

She said: “We are calling on the German authorities to publish a list of the works as quickly as possible. It’s a matter of great concern that the prosecutors said they would not publish details.”

Mr Glasser said a list could have been checked against records stored by art experts based in Munich, with pieces ultimately returned to families within two months of the initial discovery.

Mr Nemetz defended the way the case had been handled and said his “primary attention” was on whether a crime had been committed and the “exceedingly complex legal position”. He said the public attention was proving “counter-productive”.

Much of the public focus has been on the emergence of previously unknown works, but Ms Webber and other specialists criticised the lack of attention given to reuniting the paintings with their original owners.

She said: “We are calling on the German authorities to publish a list of the works as quickly as possible. It’s a matter of great concern that the prosecutors said they would not publish details.”

Mr Glasser added: “Art museums could have prepared an initial full inventory including high resolution images and public provenance from gallery and exhibition labels in around six weeks.”

He said a list could have been checked against records stored by art experts based in Munich, with pieces ultimately returned to families within two months of the initial discovery.

Ms Webber said the size of the haul would encourage survivors’ families who had previously given up hope of finding looted art.

She was “inundated” with requests from around the world for information about the recovered works.

“The emails have been very moving. There’s a real sense of hope because people had clearly previously given up,” Ms Webber said.

“It shows the potential for how much art is still missing and how much stolen work is still in galleries. In a way it just encapsulates the fact that there are so many looted artworks.”

She said that while the size of the discovery in Munich was substantial, around 90 per cent of looted works still remain unrecovered.

The Claims Conference, which works to distribute restitution payments to Shoah survivors, also expressed its concerns over the handling of the case.

Chairman Julius Berman said: “Had this discovery been made public at the time it was found, families looking for their lost art would have been able to potentially identify works within this collection.

“Publicising the existence of Nazi-looted art is essential to the process of finding heirs. With the time that has been lost, every possible effort must now be made to determine the original owners of these artworks and locate them or their heirs.”

The artwork was found during a routine investigation by customs officials at the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt.

He is the reclusive son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was recruited by the Nazis to collect artwork regarded as “degenerate” by Hitler and the leaders of the Third Reich.

Mr Gurlitt’s current whereabouts are unknown.

Customs officials said the paintings had been “professionally stored” in one room of the flat and that it had taken three days to remove them. It is not known where the artwork is now being held.

Last updated: 11:30am, November 7 2013