During the Nazi era, thousands of art works, including works by famous artists, were labeled “degenerate” and were confiscated from Jewish owners or sold at prices that were far too low. For many years now, the heirs of dispossessed Jews have been approaching art galleries in order to find out where their works of art came from.
German museums have committed themselves to check their inventories for stolen works. But stolen art is repeatedly being found outside large museums. The Munich art trove, the discovery of which was made public on Monday (04.11.2013), could also include works of art that used to be the private property of Jews.
Deutsche Welle spoke to the writer Rafael Seligmann, whose Jewish family returned to Germany after the war.
DW: Around 1,400 works by famous artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall have been discovered in a Munich apartment. Some of the works were clearly seized by the Nazis. Did the discovery of such a huge collection in the middle of Munich surprise you?
Rafael Seligmann: I have to admit that the scale surprised me. But not the fact itself. The fact that art was requisitioned, expropriated and looted is well known, as is the fact that people today continue to profit from it and that a large proportion has not been returned. But I am repeatedly astounded by how unscrupulously the issue is dealt with, even today.
At the press conference on Tuesday (05.11.2013) it was said that the works of art were discovered in 2012, and not, as had been reported before, in 2011. Still, the public was not immediately informed of the discovery. Is Germany still trying to conceal cases of looted art or to delay such cases being solved?
I wouldn’t go so far as to talk about Germany as a whole. But there are parts of Germany – museums, art collections, individuals, public institutions – that would like it if art works that they or their predecessors acquired stayed in their possession, and if they could be spared being checked.
Many Jewish individuals have been searching for works of art that used to belong to their families for years – with the help of expensive lawyers. In your opinion, how is Germany is supporting them?
The support is hesitant. Only what is definitely publically known is also admitted. I know a number of people, including well-known descendants of Jewish families, who have had an arduous struggle and have had to travel for years in order to prove that their families had art stolen from them. After all, the pattern was usually the same: until the so-called November pogrom in 1938, art wasn’t simply stolen – it was bought at a price that was much too low. So legally, everything was in order. But it was nothing short of state-sanctioned fraud. And that’s where the difficulty lies. If something was stolen, it can be proven, but if a price was paid that was much too low, then the difficulty lies in proving that the price was below market value.
Your family had to leave Germany to escape the Nazis – your mother left Berlin in 1933 and your father left a small village near Augsburg in Bavaria in the same year. Did your parents tell you about the apartments or houses or about the treasured possessions they had to leave behind?
My father’s story is interesting. He came from an established family in Ischenhausen. My father and his brother were able to flee to Palestine in 1933 after a Christian friend warned them. His parents came two years later and had to sell the house at a price that was clearly below its market value. So for the whole family, everything that was in the house – not important art treasures, but it was the biggest house in the town and these were beloved private possessions – all of it had to be left there.
Did your family ever receive any restitution payments for that?
At least German museums have now pledged to check their inventories for stolen art. Is their move too little too late?
It’s never too late. But I scarcely think that there are any survivors left alive today whose art was stolen. But that doesn’t matter. Normal inheritance law exists. And I don’t see why a family whose art and other property was stolen shouldn’t assert their rights. And if their case is judged to be legitimate, then their art works and property should be returned.
What meaning does art have for Jewish descendants – can it redress wrongs, as cynical as that may sound?
Whether someone today loves the art or just the value of the assets is irrelevant. This is property. More than anything, the question of art restitution is a question of Germany’s moral hygiene. Are people ready to let stolen or extorted art go, or do they want to keep it for themselves? With regards to Russia, people have said that art that was stolen from Germany should be returned. But regarding the art owned by Jews, people say: a price was paid for it. As far as I’m concerned, it is in the interest of German society to return works of art and other property.
You are familiar with life in Germany, as well as in the US and in Israel. How is the issue of art restitution perceived abroad?
It is perceived as an indicator. There is currently a letter from the Israeli Minister for Culture Limor Livnat to the German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann that says: how art is handled means a lot to us, because it also reflects the relationship of Germans to the Jews. And that is the decisive point for me.
How should Germany deal with Nazi stolen art in your opinion?
Germany shouldn’t wait until cases of fraud, theft and extortion come to light, but should instead actively seek their resolution. If it is known that objects were acquired through blackmail or theft, then these should be returned to Jewish heirs, bought from them, or exhibited – it’s often been the case that the heirs have said, we consent to leaving the work in the museum. But one should at least come to an agreement with the heirs. What is definitely not acceptable is for individuals to stash private collections in archives or in run-down apartments. If we claim to be a democratic, humane and honest society – and we are one – then we can’t live with stolen art.
Rafael Seligmann is a political scientist and writer. He was born in Tel Aviv, from which his family, which had fled Nazi Germany in the 30s, returned to Germany in the 50s. Seligmann is the author of numerous non-fiction books and novels on the situation of Jews in Germany. In 2010 he published his autobiography, entitled “You will like Germany” (“Deutschland wird dir gefallen”.)