On Nazi-Confiscated Art, Responsibility and Restitution

Twenty years ago, on 3 December 1998, the Principles of the Washington Conference, also known as the Washington Declaration, were adopted. This international agreement formed the basis for dealing with Nazi-confiscated art. It first made possible the restitution, in the year 2000, of the painting Borussia, which is currently the focus of the intervention REVEALED BY THE REVERSE. The Hidden History of a Painting by Adolph Menzel”. Why was the painting returned to its rightful owners so late, although its forced sale during the National Socialist period was clearly documented? In a further contribution to our series on provenance research at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, the curators of the intervention, Susan Geißler and Darja Jesse, examine this question.

For the first time in post-war history, the Washington Principles appealed to the moral obligation of cultural institutions to re-examine their collections for possible Nazi-looted assets. The Principles were adopted during the “Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets Confiscated by the Nazis during the Holocaust”. The demands were formulated in eleven articles, the so-called Washington Principles. The first of these principles – “Art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted should be identified” – implies the obligation of the institutions that hold cultural assets to actively review their stocks in search of confiscated artworks.

After identifying such works – as it says in article 8 of the Washington Principles – “steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognizing this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case.”

A turning point in the provenance research

The Federal Republic of Germany was among the signatory states in Washington, D.C. and reacted on 9 December 1999 with a Joint Declaration as well as a recommendation for its implantation. The complete title – Joint Declaration of the Federal Government, the Länder and the national associations of local authorities regarding the tracing and return of Nazi-looted art, especially Jewish property – makes it clear that not only artworks, but in fact cultural property in general should be made the object of research. This is an immense expansion of the Washington model. It is not, however, a legally binding obligation, nor does it provide the basis for individual restitution claims of those affected.

In our case the Washington Declaration, and therefore also the Joint Declaration, first made it possible to return Adolf Menzel’s Borussia to the heirs of the Mendelssohn family. The painting had been held among the family’s belongings from 1868 to 1937. As a direct result of the Nazi racial ideology the Mendelssohns had to sell large parts of their assets. In April 1937 the gallery owner Karl Haberstock acquired the painting for 19,000 Reichsmarks and sold it three years later for 48,000 RM to the so-called Special Mission Linz. This mission refers to the extensive art collection that Adolf Hitler had brought together for a planned museum in Linz. After the war most of the objects were returned to their former owners.

Central Collecting Points – Precursors of the restitutions

The largest part of the cultural assets that had been confiscated by the Nazis was located in the American Occupation Zone. The military administration of the United States proved in its restitution policy to be a trailblazer in returning the looted goods. Thousands of cultural assets retrieved by the American occupation forces were at first brought together in so-called Central Collecting Points (CCP) and sorted out there. In October 1945 Menzel’s Borussia arrived in the Munich CCP. Like all cultural goods that were collected there the Borussia received a consecutive number, in this case No. 8877.

One of the principal tasks of the CCP was the restitution of cultural assets to their rightful owners, i.e. the pre-war owners or their heirs. The so-called Property Card contained important data about the provenance of the object, for example the purchase of the painting from the Mendelssohns by Galerie Haberstock.

In another file that was compiled there for works that were destined for the Special Mission Linz, the Borussia has an entry containing the crossed-out and erased word “RESTITUTED”.

It is still not known whether this was a mistake or whether an attempt had possibly been made to return the painting. The soberness of these archive notations with their numberings, datings and innumerable listings can only give a vague indication of the stories behind the fates of these artworks.

Bureaucratic carrousel – Borrusia in possession of the state

In 1952 the American occupation administration transferred the responsibility for not yet restituted cultural assets to the German authorities. The Federal Ministry for the Treasury administered the remaining goods on into the 1960s and offered art museums in West Germany the opportunity to select objects from this pool of works as loans for their houses. Among these artworks was the Borussia, which came in 1966 to the Berlin Museum in West Berlin, later called the Berlin Municipal Museum Foundation. Pre-war owners had to assert their claims for the return of cultural goods by the end of the 1960s at the latest. After this time it was no longer possible to demand restitution.

There are several possible causes for the reservations shown by the German authorities and cultural institutions toward the return of looted goods at this time. In the immediate post-war period the priorities were to document and offset their own losses. It was necessary to determine which stocks were confiscated by the National Socialists as “degenerate” and then sold, and which objects had been taken from collections as looted art. There was, moreover, an underlying collective dimension to the desire to regain looted art that the victors had understood as compensation for their own cultural assets that had been destroyed. The loss of these stocks had left a gap not only in their collections, but also in the public consciousness. With people who had been expropriated through persecution or had had to sell their goods at less than fair value it was a case of looted art in a horrific dimension far beyond what most cultural institutions had suffered through their own losses. And many of the cultural functionaries who had come to their position during the Nazi period remained in these cultural offices after the war. They often had no sense of wrongdoing in dealing with art confiscated by the Nazis, for they had themselves profited from National Socialist cultural policies. And finally, the young Federal Republic of Germany had to adopt the restitution policy of the American administration. In other words, the tracing and restitution of Nazi-looted art was not the result of their own attempt to cope with the past, but was a measure that had been dictated to them from outside.

The debate continues

After the reunification of the two German states in 1990, international restitution claims were asserted more often and the call for moral responsibility was heard ever louder. This sparked a new debate about how to deal with Nazi-looted art and finally culminated in the Washington Declaration.

The history of the Borussia is complex and represents an exemplary case of successful restitution. It could only succeed with the help of the numerous traces on the back of the painting as well as the good condition of the archival documentation. The number of cultural goods that are still in public or private collections and have not been returned is unknown. Often they lack labels and notations that could provide clues to their former owners.

Twenty years after the Washington Conference the debates about Nazi-looted art and the implementation of the Washington Principles are continuing to this day. Many controversial points are still of concern to both the cultural institutions and the heirs to the pre-war assets. On the institutional level, it is above all a matter of the financing of the provenance research, of the overburdening of the personnel and of dealing with demands to open and examine the necessary archival materials. For the heirs there is a fundamental need for a dialogue on an equal footing and for transparency of the cultural institutions in order to achieve a “just and fair solution”. More and more voices are beginning to demand a juridical implementation of the Washington Declaration: a restitution law.