BERLIN — German lawmakers are set to introduce a new law Friday to ease the return of art looted during World War II just as officials announced the discovery of second large cache of treasures — including Monet and Renoir — belonging to the son of an art dealer once forced to work for the Nazis.
The draft law is the latest effort in a scramble to rectify a situation that has brought harsh criticism down on Germany from an international community aghast that seven decades following the end of World War II, the country can’t effectively deal with Nazi-looted art.
While Germany’s current laws set the statute of limitations at 30 years for these cases, spokesperson Ulrike Roider from the Justice Ministry of the state of Bavaria — which has introduced the bill — said the measure “aims to block the invocation of the statute of limitations in the case of a looted arm claim.”
It was in Bavaria, specifically in Munich, that the first trove of around 1,400 potentially stolen works was found in an apartment belonging to 81-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt. That case triggered international scorn when it was revealed that state officials found the cache more than two years before and failed to disclose it.
Still, Bavaria’s efforts are only a first step to get legislation up to acceptable levels, restitution experts say.
“The proposed law reflects the beginning of an understanding that the status quo in Germany is untenable in regards to looted works of art in private collections,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe based in London. “But the change in the law, if it goes through, will not do anything about the fact that the burden of proof still lies with the claimant.“
“The burden should not be on the victim,” Webber said. “The burden should be on those who are in possession of art taken from people through theft and murder.”
Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register in London, which tracks vanished works of art, agrees that the onus should be on Gurlitt to prove legitimate ownership of the art. Gurlitt’s representatives say there is currently no evidence pointing to Nazi-looted works being included in the second trove.
“Where are the invoices that show the pieces’ provenance,” Radcliffe asked. “It should be very easy for him to prove the acquisition of the pieces through legitimate means.”
Webber, too, is skeptical.
“His lawyers reportedly checked the paintings with those listed on (the lost art database) lostart.de and the Allied records of art found at the end of the war and on that basis stated they were probably not looted,” Webber said. “But Lostart.de’s database is far from comprehensive and contains only a small fraction of looted artworks — the Allied records contain only those works of art found at the end of the war.”
Radcliffe predicts more similar discoveries in the future.
“It is imaginable he tried to distribute his risk by keeping his art at several locations,” Radcliffe said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more collections were found.”
The second trove was kept at an Austrian home belonging to Gurlitt.
Meanwhile, the federal commissioner for culture is proposing another way to return treasures back to their rightful owners.
Monika Grütters, who is also a lawmaker, has proposed the creation of an independent institute to search archives and museums for art stolen by the Nazis and determine their provenance.
“I find it simply unbearable that Nazi-stolen art is still found in German museums,” Grütters told daily newspaper, Berliner Morgenpost.
While praising the initiative, Webber said the details have to be closely scrutinized.
“Who is going to guarantee the independence of the work?” asked Webber. “This agency has to be transparent, accountable, with good rules of governance and enable the return of art works to their rightful owners.”