Jewish leader says German museums turn blind eye to Nazi-looted art

Thu Jan 30, 2014 4:09pm EST
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By Monica Raymunt

BERLIN (Reuters) - German museums are wilfully ignoring their duty to come clean about works they hold that were looted from Jews by the Nazis, the head of the World Jewish Congress said on Thursday, and the government must do more to force them to act.

Germany has faced heavy criticism over its handling of the discovery of 1,407 Nazi-plundered works in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, an elderly recluse whose father took orders from Hitler to buy and sell so-called 'degenerate art' to fund Nazi activities.

Since a magazine broke the story last November, debate over the rightful ownership of works stashed in the Munich apartment - including by masters such as Duerer, Delacroix, Picasso and Matisse - has grown into a wider controversy over thousands of paintings on open display in museums.

"They know what's been stolen," WJC President Ronald Lauder told Reuters in an interview during a visit to Berlin. "And what they've been doing is turning a blind eye."

Lauder, an honorary chairman of the board of trustees of New York's Museum of Modern Art, said the discovery of the Gurlitt trove should prompt a thorough examination of the provenance of works in public collections.

He said Germany had not addressed the culpability of museums, where the Jewish Claims Conference estimates 20,000 looted items are still on display.

According to a 2012 survey by the Institute for Museum Research in Berlin, more than 2,000 registered German museums hold objects created before 1945 but acquired after 1933 - the official definition for property suspected of having been extorted by the Nazis.

Though not every work acquired in this time frame was necessarily attained through Nazi persecution, only 285 museums - less than 5 percent of all those registered in Germany - have researched the ownership history of such collections.   Continued...

World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder gives a Reuters interview in Berlin January 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz