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Germany Is Reworking the Commission That Handles Restitution for Nazi-Looted Art

A lackluster track record and controversial comments led to a shift

Berlin's Reichstag (Cezary Piwowarski via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Art restitution has been a touchy subject since the end of World War II. Though the Nazis stole thousands of artworks from Jewish people and others targeted during the Holocaust, it can still be tricky to negotiate rightful ownership, whether the piece resurfaced in a museum’s collection or at auction. In one recent example, earlier this year the Leopold Museum in Vienna agreed to return two watercolors by the painter Egon Schiele to the descendant of their original owner—but the process to secure the Schieles return took 20 years of legal battles.

To try to help clarify these issues, Germany signed on to the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which set out guidelines for 44 countries on identifying artworks stolen by the Nazis and restoring them to their rightful owners. In 2003, the German Limbach Commission was founded, and its panel of eight judges was supposed to help mediate these kinds of ownership disputes in accordance with this agreement. But more than a decade later, the commission’s work has been marred by lackluster performance, little transparency and its failure to appoint a Jewish member, Catherine Hickley reports for The Art Newspaper. After years of criticism, Germany recently announced it is reforming its controversial commission.

“Thirteen years after it was established, it is time to think about the future development of the commission in the interest of improved implementation of the Washington Principles,” German culture minister Monika Grütters said in a statement, Hickley reports.

The Limbach Commission has had a dismal track record when compared with other European countries. The German committee has only mediated disputes over 13 artworks since its founding, while its counterpart organization in the Netherlands has mediated and restored over 140 artworks since it was founded in 2002, Henri Neuendorf reports for artnet News.

The Limbach Commission’s inaction is partly due to the fact that it will only mediate cases where both sides agree to come to the table, which can be a tough proposition for a museum faced with having to give up an artwork currently in its collection. Also, the commission can only make recommendations for restitution if all its members unanimously agree.

The commission and Grütters have also taken heat for failing to appoint a single Jewish person to serve on the commission. The reason, Grütters told Alison Smale for the New York Times in March, was because “[they] would be the only voice who would be prejudiced."

The culture minister took flack for the comment, and soon changed her stance on bringing Jewish members onto the commission. Now, the addition of Jewish member of the community is just one of the changes expected from the upcoming overhaul. Currently, Grütters says she will convene a working group of cultural officials from across Germany to draft reform proposals, which so far include appointing two Jewish members, instituting term limits, publishing the commission’s agenda online and providing more funding for outside reviews, Neuendorf reports.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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