Art Theft: The Last Unsolved Nazi Crime

As Germany unearths troves of artwork seized by the Nazis during World War II, murky restitution laws make it difficult to repay an egregious debt to art collectors' families.
Two recently discovered works of art by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (left) and Otto Dix (right). (Reuters / Michael Dalder)

Earlier this month, a spectacular cache of more than 1,400 artworks surfaced in Germany—works that had been unknown to the public or presumed to be lost. And as details have emerged, one elderly American has been on the phone to his lawyer every day.

For the past five years, 88-year-old David Toren and his 92-year-old brother—both Holocaust survivors—have been trying to track down a beautiful painting that their great-uncle, the collector David Friedmann, lost due to Nazi persecution: "Two riders on the beach," by the German Impressionist Max Liebermann. Their lawyer spotted the long-lost painting on TV when it was presented to the public as one of the pieces discovered in an apartment in Munich. But whether the brothers will ever get it back is far from clear.

Between 1933 and 1945, the tightening grip of the Third Reich facilitated one of history's biggest art thefts. Initially, Jewish dealers were effectively forced to sell their precious collections at bargain prices before fleeing abroad. Later, Jewish-owned collections—such as those of David Friedmann, who died of natural causes in 1942—were systematically confiscated. Other pieces were looted after their owners were deported to concentration camps. Paintings that were deemed modern or subversive were snatched from museums and exhibited as "degenerate" art.

After the war, an Allied task force of some 345 men and women nicknamed the Monuments Men hunted for the lost pieces. They eventually returned more than five million stolen cultural objects, a daring operation that has inspired the film The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, to be released early next year. But the massive art grab from 1933-45 is perhaps the last open chapter of Germany's Nazi past. No one knows exactly how many lost works are still circulating. The deadline for claims under the original restitution laws expired in the late 1960s, long before the Internet and cheaper travel made tracing lost art easier. Today there is no active restitution law in Germany. In many cases, the art has simply become the property of its new owner.

As other publications have noted, the recent Munich art haul has cast a global spotlight on the murky legal status of art that was stolen by the Nazis, some of which has ended up in the world's most prestigious collections. Under the 1998 Washington Conference Principles, state-owned museums have the responsibility to identify and restore art lost as a result of Nazi persecution to its rightful owners. Over the past few years, Germany's government has spent millions on provenance research to uncover Nazi-looted pieces in public collections, according to its central office for provenance research.

This restitution drive does not, however, apply to private owners. While lawyers are fighting over property rights and restitution claims and lobbying for an overhaul of the entire art restitution system, families continue to feel the deep pain behind the legal tussle.

Victims, heirs, and art historians were outraged by Germany's initial refusal to give full details of the newly unearthed stash in Munich, which was actually uncovered in early 2012 as part of a tax investigation. Cornelius Gurlitt, the German citizen who allegedly kept all these hundreds of pieces—including paintings by Henri Matisse, Otto Dix, Franz Marc, and Marc Chagall—in his Munich apartment, inherited the collection from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. (Hildebrand worked as an art dealer for the Nazis and was tasked with selling paintings abroad. Archived material shows that the Monuments Men actually confiscated some of Hildebrand Gurlitt's pieces, but eventually returned them after he insisted they were his.) According to media reports, German authorities were only focusing on Cornelius Gurlitt's tax situation and treated the pieces as confidential private property.

"It's already a political disaster," said Markus Stoetzel, a German lawyer who represents the heirs of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, of how authorities handled the find. Flechtheim had to sell his collection under duress in the 1930s before emigrating to London, where he died a penniless and emotionally broken man. "This certainly doesn't do anything to improve Germany's reputation in the world. The state is intertwined with its history, and we can't get away from that. We can only deal with it transparently and openly," Stoetzel told me in German. German officials, on the other hand, argued initially that unveiling the cache would endanger the tax investigation that led them to it in the first place.

"The investigation takes priority, I can't speculate who might be the owner of some random objects," German prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz told an early press conference, according to German media.

Liebermann's "Two riders on the beach" was already registered in Germany’s official Lost Art database. Yet authorities never alerted the brothers or their lawyer, who eventually spotted the work on TV, of their find. Only later, after many had expressed outrage, did Germany agree to publish more paintings from the cache on the Lost Art website. It has now set up a task force to investigate the possible Nazi-theft background of 970 works in the cache, 590 of which might have been taken from Jewish families.

"You can imagine their state of mind," said Lothar Fremy, the brothers' lawyer, in German—referring to their reaction to the news that German authorities had been sitting on their painting all along. "Their father died in the Holocaust. Several family members died in the Holocaust. It would have been a nice gesture [for Germany] to act a bit more responsibly with this find."

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Sophie Hardach is a writer based in London.

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