Monday, Dec 6, 2021

Nazi Loot Headed To Switzerland

Whatever happened to the trove of Nazi loot worth fabulous amounts that was discovered in the possession of an elderly German recluse in Munich a short while ago? Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a Nazi art dealer who took orders from Hitler, found himself at the heart of an international firestorm after German authorities disclosed he was hiding a priceless collection of paintings - many of which were looted from Jews during the Hitler regime.

Gurlitt’s father had been tasked with removing all “degenerate art” [paintings depicting Germans or Germany in an unflattering light, as well as all work by Jewish artists] and selling it to finance Hitler’s war machine. Included in the trove are works by the world famous Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Lieberman and others.

Hundreds of pieces in the collection are suspected of having been torn down by Hitler’s thugs from galleries and homes owned by Jews. The total disappearance of scores of world famous paintings known or assumed to have been pilfered and extorted by the Nazis and sold for extravagant sums baffled authorities for decades. Were they lost? Stolen? Destroyed? By whom?

Only one man knew. He kept the secret for almost 70 years.

With the Allies hot on his trail in the waning days of World War II, the older Gurlitt turned over the entire trove to his son Cornelius before he died, with instructions to keep its existence secret. Almost 7 decades later, with his secret blown and Germany under fire for hushing up the scandal for two years, Cornelius himself died, bequeathing the entire collection to the Swiss museum, Kunstmuseum Bern (KMB).

OPENING A PANDORA’S BOX?

World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder told German news magazine Der Spiegel earlier this month that the Swiss museum “would be crazy to accept this bequest.” Such a move would “open a Pandora’s Box and trigger an avalanche of lawsuits,” he said.

Amid heated debate about whether the museum would – or should – accept the Gurlitt collection, the German-Swiss deal went through this week. With the transfer of the artwork to the museum, the Swiss will retain possession of works that would fetch more than $1million apiece on the open market.

The news hit like a bombshell, sparking dismay and indignation from Holocaust claimants and restitution lawyers who challenged Gurlitt’s right to the artwork. They also dispute the legality of the German government’s transferring ownership of Holocaust-era stolen goods to a Swiss museum.

The museum’s leadership has vowed not to keep any paintings that were looted or extorted from Jews below market rate. “Any works of art deemed to be looted art or even considered likely to have been looted art will never darken the doorstep of the [museum]” and, in fact, will “not even touch Swiss territory,” said Christoph Schaeublin, president of the museum’s board of trustees, in an interview with Jerusalem Post.

But President of the Claims Conference Julius Berman expressed skepticism that the museum’s high-minded pledge would be upheld beyond a token form of compliance. “To know which items were looted, there must be a transparent determination of provenance (history of ownership), publication of the findings and a free and fair restitution claims process. To date, these have not been done,” he told the Jerusalem Post.

He said Jewish organizations have long called for the online publishing of the full list of all items in the collection in order to identify stolen pieces and their true owners. In the face of unrelenting world pressure, a task force had been set up by German authorities in 2013 for this purpose but has made scant progress.

According to the agreement between the museum, the German federal government and the state of Bavaria, the works will remain in Germany while the government’s task force continues to investigate the provenance of the individual artworks.

The agreement stipulates that if a work is found to have been looted, the German government will return it to its rightful owner. If an owner of a specific work is not found, then it will be displayed in Germany and the piece in question will be listed on a special website, “lostart.de,” to provide any heirs the chance to learn of its existence.

‘EATING FROM THE FRUIT OF THE POISON TREE’

But critics felt the Agreement places the onus on uncovering evidence of Nazi foul play on survivors and their descendants, contrary to a law enacted by the Allies in 1945 and incorporated throughout post-war Germany, which premised that all sales of art in Germany from 1933 through 1945 are suspect.

The head of an Israeli restitution group, Project Heart, said the Agreement is unacceptable because the burden of proof that the artwork is “clean” should be on the museum not on survivors and their heirs. “Because the dead son of one of the major art fences for the Nazi regime’s looted art willed these pieces to the Kunstmuseum is no reason why this ‘cultural’ institution should eat from the fruit of the poison tree,” Bobby Brown said, warning of legal battles ahead.

Attorney Sam Dubbin who represents The Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, echoed this sentiment. “Such a move would absolve Germany of the need to determining the provenance of the items in the collection. It shifts the burden onto survivors and their families “to find and recover their legacies” he told the Jerusalem Post.

“It is the same disgraceful tactic all of these countries, including Germany and even the United States, along with the insurance companies, have continuously used — hiding the ball and waiting for the survivors to die,” he said.

‘THE WASHINGTON PRINCIPLES’

Not everyone opposed the move to transfer ownership of the collection to the Swiss museum. Stuart Eizenstat, a special adviser to US Secretary of State John Kerry on Holocaust issues and a member of the Claims Conference who has negotiated financial settlements with Germany for survivors, expressed support for the move. Eizenstat indicated he believed the museum administration would honor its commitment to abide by the Washington Principles, signed in 1998 by 44 nations, led by the United States.

This agreement was formalized after a 1997 investigation found that some 100,000 stolen pieces of Nazi-looted art were still missing. It called for a central public registry of art that might be Nazi loot, and for eliminating the statute of limitations that imposed a 30-year post Holocaust deadline on art restitution.

Though hundreds of art works have been returned, the vast majority have been stubbornly retained by their present-day German keepers, or clandestinely sold or traded on the market for stolen art in countries across Europe.

Lauder’s skepticism about the transfer of the Gurlitt collection to Switzerland was shared by many other parties involved in the case. Restitution lawyers Mel Urbach and Markus Stötzel say the move “fell short of moral justice.”

“Under Allied law 59, all transfers after the Nazis came to power in 1933 were highly suspicious,” Urbach told Yated in an interview. “Jews were immediately degraded and abused, and forced to sell to people like Gurlitt. Much of this man’s collection was built during this early period Nazi terror with what many would call blood money. These tainted funds were used to amass an art fortune, an illegitimate Nazi collection that was hidden from the world since the Holocaust.”

“Now that it has been found, the collection belongs in the home of the Jewish nation — Israel – from whom it was robbed,” Urbach said. “It was built upon their suffering.”

He noted that the Agreement contains broad loopholes allowing the Swiss to withhold information about a painting’s provenance that might compromise “third parties.” That clause wholly undermines the moral obligation to place restitution of Nazi-looted property ahead of concerns about who might be embarrassed about the disclosures, he said.

PUBLISH THE HOLOCAUST LEDGERS

The attorney noted that important ledgers and documents accompany the Gurlitt collection that shed light on hundreds of transactions, revealing how Nazi terror was used to rob innocent Jewish victims.

They ought to be published immediately, he said, noting that potential heirs, Jewish organizations and art experts have all joined the call for the ledgers to be published.

An Associated Press article that asserted that “Germany [has] published online the business ledgers of Gurlitt’s father Hildebrand,” falls short of the truth, Urbach told Yated. “Little to nothing has been published so far.”

“Despite repeated requests for this information, we are still waiting. The Holocaust started in 1933 with early Nazi brutality and the fallout continues until these heirlooms are returned to their rightful owners. Almost every one of the over 6000 museums in Germany holds some looted Judaica or artifacts that do not belong in Germany. These are the last prisoners of the Holocaust.”

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