MUNICH – The 1,500 artworks found this week in Munich and seized by the authorities have been described as a “rediscovered treasure.” It is an apt description.

By all accounts, there is a dramatic story behind this historic cache of art missing since the Third Reich, a tale of a modern-day lair and an eccentric old man. It has also been reported that a pair of hardy policemen stumbled upon the trail that led to this buried treasure, whose value is quite simply immeasurable. A figure of one billion euros is being thrown around, but as only a very small number of the works have been identified, the value could turn out to climb far higher.

Germany has made efforts to compensate many of those who had their property confiscated during the Third Reich. The government has tried to right the wrongs when it comes to the Prussian manors and “Aryanized” department stores, pension claims and forced labor. Although those affected know that there can be no true compensation for the pain inflicted, the financial payments have been a gesture towards reconciliation. History has largely done its work and time has passed, more than the 60 years that Sir Walter Scott once claimed to be the ideal interval for a historical novel.

However, when it comes to art the rules are different. Every demand for the restitution of an artwork that was stolen or confiscated during the Third Reich has the potential for scandal. That is because every work of art is unique and irreplaceable and, ironically, art can never truly be owned, a peculiarity that makes it all the more desirable.

But it is also simply because the value of artworks, especially modern art, has increased dramatically over the last 40 years. And the fact that the history of modern art is so closely tied to the history of Jewish artists and art dealers makes this betrayal all the more shameful.

 

A Van Gogh self-portrait is auctioned in Switzerland in 1939. It was one of the works branded as Degenerate art by the Nazis, confiscated and sold for $40,000.

Highly complex legal situation

A treasure has been found in Munich and the authorities seem to have cast themselves as its new protectors. This has led Berlin art lawyer Peter Raue to demand that a complete list of the discovered works be published immediately. The authorities have replied that they are in the middle of an ongoing trial and therefore cannot reveal the individual works involved.

It sounds like there is another chapter still to come in this story. But the authorities’ approach is correct, as the legal situation is highly complex. Some of the artworks discovered in this cache were not taken from private owners. They come from the “Degenerate Art” exhibition organized by the Third Reich with the aim of turning the German people against modern art movements that were considered un-German or Jewish Bolshevist. This involved taking exhibits from many museums, so the works did not belong to artists, art dealers or private collectors.

 

Hitler inspects the installation of the "Degenerate Art Show", 1937. Photo: Anonymous

More than a treasure

The Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated Art are binding for museums but not for private owners. Under certain circumstances, the latter can legally own confiscated artworks. Therefore it is not only 1,500 paintings that have been discovered, but also the potential for hundreds or even thousands of legal battles, which could stretch out for decades.

Whether the discovery in Munich came about by chance or was the result of a tip-off, it represents far more than a few precious paintings. It is a story of the skyrocketing value of art in a time of increasing financial prosperity. It is a story of the shameful treatment of Jewish artists, art dealers and collectors, which will not be forgotten. It is a story of the fundamental distinction between public and private ownership. And it is a story of the Third Reich, a period that is just now beginning to fade into history.