Merkel may speed up the return of Nazi art haul to victims' heirs
HEIRS of Jewish victims of the Nazis have new hope that lost family artworks will be returned following signals that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is considering an overhaul of the country's much-criticised art restitution policy.
US and Israeli officials and prominent Jewish leaders have launched a new diplomatic push to pressure Germany and its museums to speed up and bring transparency to the often slow and opaque process.
Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire who heads the World Jewish Congress, said this month that he will lobby Berlin to form an international committee of independent art experts to trawl through German museums for possible Nazi cultural loot.
"More than 20 million artworks were stolen during the war and many of them are still hanging in German museums," said Mr Lauder.
"We have not seen the will of the government to comb through its own collections."
The onus is currently on Jewish heirs to track down artworks in museums, galleries and private collections that they believe were looted, and prove that they were seized or sold cheaply under duress.
Mel Urbach, a New York lawyer and restitution expert who represents the British heirs of a prominent Jewish art dealer, said he believes new German culture minister Monika Grutters, sworn in last week, would support a new approach.
"We understand that she is quite favourably disposed to our position on this issue, as is Mrs Merkel," he said. "German institutions have tended to be rather adversarial on this, but we are hearing that that might change."
The catalyst for this new campaign was the revelation last month that Bavaria had kept secret for some 20 months the discovery of 1,400 artworks in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, an elderly Munich recluse whose father was a Nazi-authorised art dealer.
Even though Germany signed up to the international 1998 Washington accords on the return of Nazi plunder, it has since emerged that Mr Gurlitt may be entitled to keep most of the paintings, in part because the country's statute of limitations has passed for individual claims.
But in a sign of shifting mood in Germany, the new Bavarian justice minister is drafting legislation to lift that statute of limitations in such cases.
Douglas Davidson, the US state Department's envoy on Holocaust issues, has visited Berlin twice in the last month to encourage German authorities to implement the spirit of the 1998 protocols.
"The Germans have an admirable record on confronting their past under the Nazis with Holocaust education, monuments and museums," Stuart Eizenstat, an architect of the 1998 accords and special adviser to US secretary of state, John Kerry, said.
"We don't want art restitution to be an exception. The momentum after the Washington Principles in 1998 has slowed down and there is a troubling lack of transparency and speed." (©Daily Telegraph, London)