The Nazi Art Theft Crisis in Europe

Archaic laws complicate the return of looted works of art to their rightful owners.

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Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl
Getty Images

Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl by Gustav Klimt

In the past few weeks, a Gustav Klimt portrait hanging in a show at London’s National Gallery was denounced as Nazi loot. A museum director in Vienna resigned in protest over his staff’s ties to a new foundation tainted by Nazi art theft. And a Munich art collector was discovered to be hiding perhaps a billion dollars of stolen art.

Many people were surprised by the flood of revelations, wondering: How can there still be so much stolen art at large, 70 years after World War II?

For decades, the keepers of Nazi-looted art have been biding their time until various statutes of limitations lapsed. They have hidden behind archaic laws that complicate the return of looted works of art to their rightful owners—or have simply refused to investigate red flags that suggest a dubious provenance for a work in their collection.

A 1997 study estimated that some 100,000 stolen pieces of art were still missing. In 1998, 44 nations agreed to create a central public registry of art that might be Nazi loot. Though hundreds of art works have been returned, there has been no stampede of museums, auction houses and collectors eager to comply with the agreement. In much of Europe, laws still tolerate the “grey market” for stolen art.

However, our hyper-viral media landscape has revealed the shenanigans of the art world to a larger and less tolerant audience. Social media is bringing long-overdue claims into the open—and showing there is a long way to go in complying with the moral obligations of restitution.

Take the case of the art stored in a Munich apartment, a cache of more than 1,400 works by Picasso, Matisse, Munch, and Cezanne. From the moment the story broke in November, it went viral on Facebook and Twitter, sweeping across time zones and diverting attention from celebrity news.

Cornelius Gurlitt inherited the drawings and paintings from his father. Some of the work was deemed “degenerate art” and pulled from the walls of German museums in the late ’30s. Some probably belonged to Jewish families. In March 2012, German authorities found the art while investigating Gurlitt for tax evasion but remained silent about the discovery. A German magazine broke the news in early November 2013.

Germany was woefully unprepared to handle the firestorm that ensued. Authorities told an astonished public that they may have to return the stolen art to Gurlitt because the 30-year criminal statute on theft has expired. Unsurprisingly, there have been calls for cases like this one to be considered theft in the service of genocide, under the Nuremberg War Crimes framework.

The ongoing Nazi art theft debacle in Munich may prove to be instructive. The whole world is watching. It is still possible for Germany to confront this moral challenge with grace—and set a dignified example for other countries that may be forced to confront belated Nazi art theft restitutions of their own.

Anne-Marie O’Connor is the author of the award-winning nonfiction Nazi art theft saga, “The Lady in Gold, the Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.” She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

64 comments
TrującaWróśka
TrującaWróśka

A nazi who works for the American government stole my art while I was in jail. Candace Buckram worked there, and she smiled sadistically while she stole it. She is a nazi, and I am Polish. When nazis tried to take over Poland, they wanted to turn Polish people into sex slaves or labor slaves. Candace Buckram wanted to turn me into a sadism-satisfaction slave by performing the worst possible treatment she could on me while I was there. And to make it worse, she stole my art, so that I couldn't even draw to pass the time, because I didn't want my art to be in the hands of that deranged person who is so evil I can't think of a good word to describe her. If I drew a picture of her, she would be dead, with a sword in it, and her body would be deflating because it was full of worms and grubs, like the Boogeyman on the Nightmare Before Christmas, and all the worms and grubs would be coming out of the sword wound. A living Candace Buckram is too horrible to draw. And the US government protects her by giving her a secret identity so that I couldn't find her when I did a background check. That is part of the problem of the US -- it is legal to be a nazi, and they even hire deranged nazi psychopaths to work for the government.

unbreakableman5
unbreakableman5

does any one know how many arts where stolen in world war two?

maunaloasummit
maunaloasummit

People..do you realize what the term "Holocaust Survivor" actually means? It means....any person with Jewish blood that was ALIVE from approx 1939 to 1945 that lived in Northern Africa, Europe, the Middle East etc.... when I found this out I was BLOWN AWAY. The term "Holocaust Survivor" has NO BASIS in "threat/pain/imprisonment" or anything. The lies and the BS ..NEVER stop.

maunaloasummit
maunaloasummit

soooo..once again...here come the Jews with their hands out...maybe we should move them from Israel to Madagascar (which btw was the original plan during WWII)

larz2500
larz2500

Jews say that the Nazis wanted to "rule the world"-- not true at all.  They wanted Jews out of their country because they were corrupting every aspect of it.  They also wanted a strong and vibrant German race.  The Jews inside the country, of course, did not like this and the Jewish Communists next door with the stolen country thought it a crime and were dead-set on destroying Germany.  World Jewry "declared war" on the country far before any guns were fired.  Media is now 100% owned and operated by Jews.  This is a fact.  Look at other places besides Time, CNN, and others for some actual history.  The truth is out there, and is not going away.

jem4802
jem4802

My father would tell us about France and how his family had to flee in WWII, because of the German occupation. They owned a chateau in Bordeaux, and a large home in Paris, they had to abandon everything, including an extensive collection of modern art. My father would tell us how, before TV and photos, that those paintings were part of their family. They might have been destroyed as degenerate art, but we will never know. To my knowledge, his family has never tried to get anything back, and now it has been so long, everyone is dead. It is sad that this is the story of so many. 

MichaelFowler
MichaelFowler

I don't think there should be a statute of limitations on anything pertaining to theft of the Nazi's. I feel anything found even 100 years down the road or more should be returned to the rightful family or their siblings or whomever may be alive at the time. It was taken under false pretenses and as we now know, they had no right to take anything from any country and claim is degenerate or whatever excuse they wanted to. The prejudice even today is wrong and people should be prosecuted for being prejudice. I am no way shape or form prejudice against any one. I love all people and try to make friends where ever I am. I understand that not all people wants to be your friend and that is fine, they are missing out on a friend that would do anything he can for anyone at any time. This is my comment and my comment only and I am sure that there will be numerous people that don't agree with me and I am fine with that, but that time of our world was a terrible time and so many soldiers died from multiple countries and didn't make it back home to their families. I would like to know why Hitler was not stopped a lot sooner so all these different nationalities had to die because being the Jew that he was, was allowed to kill whomever he wanted because he didn't agree or like certain nationalities. Remember WW2.

FuzzyThinker
FuzzyThinker

Some people view Europe as morally bankrupt.  How government and citizens deal with this stolen property issue will be very interesting.

kennedymike250
kennedymike250

Uh huh, as some readers seem to be siding with the gentleman who holds the art that disappeared during the Nazi era, it is interesting that it is suggested that the former owners of the art or their descendants should provide proof of their rightful ownership.  Well, considering that many of the former owners and their families were killed at the hands of the Nazis, that might be a wee bit difficult to do.  How convenient now for Mr. Klimt.  Germany, do something instead of trying to keep this quiet.

antiqueynot43
antiqueynot43

SnowShift, Wonderful. Thank you. The only reason why I feel I have any hope or justification for any claims, is that I have photos of the inside of the family home from 1923, an inventory list from 1932, and another inventory list created by the US Government in 1948. Almost all records in Hungary were destroyed either during WWII or in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. I am not just blowing smoke, I can back up my claims. Thank goodness previous generations had the foresight they did. Many families that have rightful claims do not have this advantage, but they still deserve compensation for their losses. Your final paragraph is certainly true, thank you again.

SnowShift
SnowShift

The justification for companies throwing away old records is peculiar, and relevant to this situation. Some years ago, laws changed in the US. Lawyers started strongly recommending to clients they throw away all company information older than some number of years. I happened to know a manager at an aircraft company, and I knew that some of their planes had been flying for decades. If they followed the lawyer's suggestion, they'd be destroying material that was likely to be of use to their customers.

So to avoid legal responsibility, lawyers were effectively recommending destruction of property!

A related effect happens in the art world. At one point, one might have argued "Let bygones be bygones", but the computer age has changed all that. There's no technical reason records can't be kept indefinitely. In the pre-computer age, it would be prohibitively expensive to track the history of a "stolen" painting 70 years. But modernly, there's no reason it can't be done.

So two differing things are being confounded. One is a bygone era when it was impractical to keep records, and modernly, lawyers' trying to protect their clients. Trying to protect their clients, effectively from past misdeeds.

Art needs to be recoverable, indefinitely. All protecting the criminals does is encourage them to hold objects of great social value out of sight for decades.

antiqueynot43
antiqueynot43

4sanity, thank you for complete, knowledgeable, and reasoned explanation of the Gurlitt case.  That.loopy.guy, NO, if you screw with me or those that I care about, I WILL respond, no matter how long it takes. ab.studioa, while I do not agree with how you express yourself, my condolences over your loss, AND you are absolutely correct. The Allies treated Germany HORRIBLY after WWI. My mother told me how the people of Germany had to take wheelbarrows full of money to buy a loaf of bread. These were the German people, just people like any other. Most had nothing to do with the horrors of war, and even many of those that were involved were merely trying to survive, if they didn't do as they were told, they would have been killed. What is trying to be reconciled now is the willing, methodical, purposeful thievery perpetrated during WWII. One Great Uncle of mine (Grand Mother's brother) was imprisoned for a while during WWII, only by escaping did he avoid being gassed. He was imprisoned by Hungarian Fascists ( this term used in a US Government document), jailed by his countrymen. I knew my Great Uncle, and he was not a particularly pleasant person. If that was a reason to murder and rob someone, a lot of us, at times including me, would be in REAL trouble. My family is from Hungary, and Hungary has been absolutely horrible with regard to WWII reparations and this has been ever since WWII. Hungary confiscated property without any compensation. Right now, Hungary is in tough financial condition, and those in power now had nothing to do with WWII atrocities, but we need to come to some reasonable solution. Telling me to "get over it" is not going to happen, just as telling the survivors, of any nationality, to get over it, is not, in my opinion, a reasonable response.  There is no way to compensate for family murdered, but if items looted are found, then a reasonable solution for compensation need to be struck.

mjquintanilla1975
mjquintanilla1975

Why is it that this is the only type of theft the media reports? What about the theft of land, natural resources, or worse the theft of human beings right to survive? This was sad like so many other sad events that have happened since there have been wars and atrocities. But' it's property and does not deserve anymore resources or energy spent to its recovery or return. Spend that money preventing something like this from happening again. It is a bunch of dusty artwork that eventually will be displayed after whoever has it passes on. 

jefnvk
jefnvk

Plenty of this going on all over Europe, and not just with art.  At this point, it is hard to figure out.  If the works remain with the raiders, it is simple enough, they go back to the families.  But, what happens if it has been sold, possibly multiple times, since then?  Even more so if it was sold through legitimate channels?  I'm tempted to just say crap happens, its awful, and at this point, we can't always go back trying to figure out who the legitimate owner is.

4sanity
4sanity

It is interesting how the author of this article, Anne-Marie O'Connor, presents the case of Cornelius Gurlitt and the "horde" of paintings stored in a Munich apartment as some type of vindication of illegal activity by Mr. Gurlitt or deliberate obfuscation by the authorities.


Some inconvenient facts that are not as widely reported (or frequently omitted) because they provide a somewhat different perspective.


Mr. Gurlitt's father Hildebrand Gurlitt was a successful and recognized art dealer during the second world war and held numerous prominent positions. He was ousted by the Nazi's due to his maternal grandmother being Jewish.


He was however one of several dealers authorized by the Nazi regime to handle the sale of art designed by them as "degenerate" to overseas buyers as a means of raising foreign currency. It is certainly documented from his own correspondence that one lot of approximately 200 French paintings, derived in a large part from museum collections, was sold to him by the Nazi regime, that was then traded on the international market through Switzerland, which as a neutral country at the time, was one of the few routes of trade still functional.


At the end of the war, the Allies arrested and interrogated Gurlitt about these art works. At the conclusion of the investigation, the paintings were returned to him by the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) program run by the Allies which designated the CONTINUED sale of such paintings as legitimate.


Hildebrand Gurlitt continued to sell and auction paintings until 1956. Upon his death, his son Cornelius Gurlitt legally inherited his estate and art collection. Cornelius Gurlitt has auctioned occasional art works as a source of income. 


In 2010, a routine German customs inspection on a train from Switzerland found Mr. Gurlitt in possession of E9,000 in cash, which is a legal amount to carry without a custom declaration. Mr. Gurlitt was not charged with any crime (tax evasion) but it nevertheless prompted a tax audit and investigation that led to the Munich apartment where the current collection had been located for long term storage.


To this day Mr. Gurlitt has NOT been charged with tax evasion, has NOT been charged with trading in illegal/stolen/looted art works, and in fact the "confiscation" of his paintings is unlawful under German laws. The paintings are his rightful, legal property ..... unless someone can prove otherwise in court. It should be noted that individuals are not under any obligation to validate the authenticity or origins of wartime art. Institutions (e.g. museums) are under a voluntary mandate to confirm and where appropriate return art. By German property laws, if artworks were acquired through legitimate means then current owners are the legal owners. In this case, three avenues support this: 1) Hildebrand Gurlitt BOUGHT some of the paintings from the Nazi regime, 2) The Allied MFAA investigated, then returned and validated the  continued sale of these paintings, and 3) Cornelius Gurlitt legally and properly inherited his father's total personal art collection.


It is likely that among the complete collection there will be paintings where there are legitimate claims by former war-time owners. But for these paintings to be returned, prior owners need to present reliable evidence that the paintings were appropriated under illegitimate means. As a successful art dealer, Hilderbrand Gurlitt would have been buying, selling, trading art on a routine basis so to make some sort of blanket claim that this collection was illegally acquired seems reckless. State investiators did not initially disclose the extent or specifics of the art collection - it is private collection and there were no legal grounds to disclose this information. That information was subsequently released after leaks.


It will be interesting to see how many, if any, of the art works can be shown to be "looted" and should be returned through court proceedings. But Mr. Gurlitt is quite right that he sees no reason to give up his "legal property" voluntarily. He has not been charged with, much less committed, any crime.


ab.studioa
ab.studioa

Out of five members of my family sent to the German Nazi extermination camp in Auschwitz located in the Greater Germany [ this area has been incorporated into the Third Reich in October of 1939 ] only one survived. 68 years have passed since the end of the war and not even one sitting German Chancellor had the courage to visit Auschwitz and pay respect to those killed there. Conveniently skipping "German" from  "Nazi"  thus taking responsibility from the perpetrators and the country....

larz2500
larz2500

The rape of Germany continues, and continues.  Do realize Germany was nearly completely destroyed after the war?  That millions of Germans starved to death in Eisenhower's death camps?  That since then, Germany has paid BILLIONS to other countries and people, especially Jews?  That Germany was split into two and half suffered under Communist oppression for 50 years?  Do you realize Germany recently GAVE Israel several nuclear strike capable Dolphin submarines?  LEAVE GERMANY ALONE.

dukeofparma
dukeofparma

It's the dirty little secret of Europeans and the rich. There are thousands of pieces of unclaimed art once owned by persons long since dead. Instead of paying the heirs the new owners simply seized it from the Nazis and then never bothered to check to see if their are any heirs still alive.


Same with the Swiss Banks. Prior to the war thousands of Jews deposited millions of dollars in "secret" bank accounts. The Jews died in the war but the Swill Banks were happy to keep the money because they can use it but don't have to pay for it or ever return it to the depositor's heirs. And because it's a "secret" account by law they can't search for the heirs.


All very convenient and all neatly blamed on the Nazis.

TRUTHvGOP
TRUTHvGOP

30 years or 70 years - who cares? Stolen is still stolen, and stolen art should be returned to the families of those from which it was taken. Only a person of low moral character would defend a practice of keeping what was known to be stolen from somebody else.


After 42 years I am still looking for my Fender Stratocaster, serial number 10399, which was stolen from me by Rick Bates in about 1971. I would dearly like to have my Strat back, but I sincerely doubt that whoever has it has the integrity to return it.

antiqueynot43
antiqueynot43

While I certainly do not agree with what pmourassa has said, this is America and he has the right to express himself, just as we have the right to express ourselves. I have found that people such as this are just trying disparately to get attention, and he did this. Good for him. I equate this with others who appear on TV and even though they are complete idiots, say "Hey look I'm on the TV". Use Cesar Milan's method for dealing with unruly dogs. Ignore them, retain YOUR personal power and keep true to yourself. By the way, pmourassa, you are an antiquated, apathetic, idiotic, Neanderthal. Go crawl back under the rock from which you emerged. Antiqueynot

larz2500
larz2500

When will the world say "enough"?  It was getting ridiculous 50 years ago.

Palorte
Palorte

pmourassa is a time traveling NAZI. You know, the type who like to dress up in leather boots & stand in front of the mirror for hours at a time. Sadly there are still thousands of losers like IT all over the world

antiqueynot43
antiqueynot43

My brother and I are pursuing reparations that were denied my Great Grand Mother, my Grand Mother and her siblings, my mother, and, so far, my brother and I. Theft is theft, murder is murder. It is my hope that finally some restitution can be accomplished after a mere 65 years.

juepucta
juepucta

@maunaloasummit have you been sucking on urinal cakes again?

retphxfire
retphxfire

@maunaloasummit Well, little man, if they weren't rounded up by the squads or were 'lucky' the Allies arrived before the Germans than they survived.  What would you call the civilians that weren't killed in war zones? They are considered as surviving the war, just like any Jew who wasn't transported is a survivor of the war. The racist, ignorant and bizarre lies, misleading facts from the 'no holocaust' fascists never stop.

retphxfire
retphxfire

@maunaloasummit Their hands out????   They are asking for their property to be returned. Property that has stolen by your heroes. Sooooooo, once again, we have the racist extreme right shrunken brains ignoring the truth and pretending nothing bad happened. There was no war, no Nazi 'final solution', no genocide. Careful, Hawaii isn't safe (it WAS bombed, btw) so your kind could be next........

retphxfire
retphxfire

@larz2500 So which right wing extremist group were you raised in?  Aryan Nation, Harry Barnes, Nolte, Rassinier? How about David Irving, whose entire 'historical research' was completely debunked by true historians and researchers and presented at Deborah Lipstadts libel trial, which she easily won.  Why would you, do you choose the remain so woefully ignorant?  What kind of mental monsters brainwashed you?

graeme.rodgers
graeme.rodgers

@larz2500 who cares what Nazi Germany wanted, who cares if Jewish people control the media, who cares what you think. It is called anti-Semitic when you fear Jewish people having what everyone else has.Jewish people did not corrupt Germany, hate and the treaty of Versailles did, learn your history.

RussMartin
RussMartin

@larz2500 The whole Nazi regime was based on the myth of the Arian race, which never existed. It was a myth created in the late 1800's, that Hitler and other Germans gravitated to, because in the wake of WWI it gave them something to be proud of.  The Nazis embellished it and expanded it. They rated every nationality and race on a scale from Arian down to subhuman.  They believed that through eugenics, or selective breeding, they could breed out any impurities in the Arian race. Therefor, they wanted strengthen the Arian traits, and eliminate non Arian. Since, according to their scale, Jews were on the bottom, they had to be exterminated, to prevent the mixing of them with Arians.  It was completely discredited as a theory and resulted in the murder of millions of innocent people.  Face it. It is German history.  And according to the Nazis, everything Arian was better.  Non Arian art was to be seized because it was similar to pollution.  However some, such as Goring knew how valuable the art was, and collected vast amounts.  

johndconnaughton
johndconnaughton

@antiqueynot43 

You need some history.  I recommend 'The Guns of August' by Barbara Tuckman because it is fascinating reading as well as educational, in spite of her possible prejudice.  Basically, the inflation suffered by Germany that involved wheelbarrow imagery was achieved WITHOUT the help of the allies forces  or the allied nations.  And while I despise generalizing, a HUGE percentage of the German people of that day followed their Kaiser in butchery (no other word fits) with zero compunction, because they were raised to think themselves above such considerations.  


But all this pre-dates the experiences your family suffered.  I am as saddened by that point in time as anyone can be, and if I prayed it would be that we have learned.

johndconnaughton
johndconnaughton

@4sanity  

It should be noted that individuals are not under any obligation to validate the authenticity or origins of wartime art. Institutions (e.g. museums) are under a voluntary mandate to confirm and where appropriate return art.

Fair enough.  It is the law that is lacking morally, especially given the known Nazi history.  Not to say all things can be traced, but this encourages a lack of effort.

larz2500
larz2500

@ab.studioa Boohoo.. You poor thing.  Give me your information and I shall send a check right away!  BTW, I had 20 relatives incinerated at Dresden.  People are starting to not sympathize with you folks any longer, you know that, right?

northernstar
northernstar

@larz2500 Germany has the strongest economy in Europe and certainly one of the strongest in the world.  You state that Germany was nearly completely destroyed"; yes, thats what happens when you START a war and continued after you lose superiority.  While destroyed, Germany was REBUILT by the allies.  What is your point ?  Germany does not deserve much sympathy for WWII.  In addition to what happened to the JEWS, Millions were killed as a result of the war Germany started and conducted without mercy.  Germany invaded the Soviet Union with the idea of enslaving those people.  When the Russians took Berlin they decided to keep it (like they did with so many other countries).  No one is picking on Germany.  The world is only amazed that Germany would tolerate anyone keeping so much stolen treasures from Nazi looting.

dissin2000
dissin2000

@larz2500 Nice try, but it's a tough house you're playing to. Being the aggressors in two world wars doesn't help the plea. 

Tiredofstupid
Tiredofstupid

@larz2500Being that Germanic people have been trying to take over Europe since the Roman Empire, stealing from and killing whoever is in their path, and they are at the center of the two most destructive wars in history, the rest of the world could say LEAVE US ALONE.

kleonsky
kleonsky

@larz2500 When the stolen art will be returned to those few who can claim it.

larz2500
larz2500

@RussMartin  @RussMartin I'm curious, where did you get your info from?  Ancient Nazi Parchment?  Your paragraph is almost comprehensible.  The word is, "Aryan", by the way.

4sanity
4sanity

@johndconnaughton @4sanity 

It would be good if everyone were to act at the highest levels of ethical standards but there are also practical limitations. Individuals generally don't have the proper resources to authenticate this type of question about an art work's origins or chain-of-custody, especially items like some obscure painting found in your Aunt Mabel's attic, or art that was sold before/during/after wartime when chaos and loss of records compound the issue.


Everytime a piece of art changes hands, should individuals be required to post a picture on Instagram or take out an ad in a national newspaper asking for "owners" to step forward ? When does it end ? Who is responsible for the loss of $ value to the person who "paid" but then is left with nothing ? It's no wonder these issues end up in long winded expensive lawsuits.


I agree laws could use some updating and a more nuanced approach, but current rules (including statute of limitations) are generally reasonable. This problem is also not unique to Nazi looting. There are plenty examples from every war and occupation, including US servicemen who routinely "looted". You might also like to look at the massive art collections appropriated as booty by the Russians that are NOT being returned despite clear ownership documentation. And I doubt there's a single museum anywhere that can claim with a straight face that they don't harbor in their collections artifacts or art that wasn't looted, stolen or pillaged under force from another country, group or individual, e.g. British Museum and the Elgin marbles, or items in the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.

popcornmaltese
popcornmaltese

larz2500

Boo hoo to your Dresden crispy critters too. If you want sympathy you have to extend it. Those Nazis terrorized the continent so they got it back in spades. What did they expect? To rule the world? Ha ha. 

northernstar
northernstar

@that.loopy.guy @TRUTHvGOP  The law is the law.  However when the law was written NO one imagined an atrocity like WWII, the theft of so much, and the people deliberately hiding the stolen goods.

dissin2000
dissin2000

@larz2500 Wow! You're pretty cold aren't you? And to round out your ignorance in your comment to ab.studioa.... yes, most HUMANE people do sympathize for the horrors and suffering of the holocaust. There is always that "lunatic fringe" (eye roll) that have to shoot off their ignorant mouths. Just remember that old childhood rule: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't speak!