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Why Germany's Nazi Art Seizure Was Wrong

In serving the plundered art worth hundreds of millions, historical justice is being served. But it comes at the expense of legal rectitude.

Franz Marc's 1911 "Horses in landscape", one of the 1,280 Gurlitt artworks
Franz Marc's 1911 "Horses in landscape", one of the 1,280 Gurlitt artworks
Heribert Prantl

Cornelius Gurlitt, the 81-year-old art collector who was discovered to have stashed away a unique collection of modern masterpieces looted by the Nazis, has signalled that he will return the artworks to descendants of their original Jewish owners.

MUNICH — The seizing of the 1,280 Gurlitt artworks by Augsburg’s district attorney two years ago was a legal error — a major, and in some ways incomprehensible error. Reading the dryly ambitious search-and-seize request that made it possible doesn't help the case.

The charges were tax-related — and to deal with this minor case the authorities moved in on a collection of art valued in the hundreds of millions of euros. The reaction was completely out of proportion, bordering on the scandalous. But at the same time, the seizure itself was a blessing in the sense that it led to fantastic discovery and revelation: A bad application of the law yielded the truth about the fate of a genuine cultural treasure.

Before their dubious seizure, the pictures were dead. Now with the research into their provenance, they're talking. They talk about their past, where and in whose premises they hung. They tell the tale of forced sale, of plunder. The artworks are imbued with the invisible signs of Nazi crimes, but also the very visible ones of having been hoarded and hidden.

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List of looted artworks — Source: National Archives Washington

Law has limits

Many of the seized works were the objects of greed and avarice. They once adorned the salons of Nazi bosses and the stockrooms of Nazi-era art dealers, as their rightful owners disappeared into concentration camps. In a moment in time when the last human witnesses are dying, when memory thus risks expiring, the future of Holocaust remembrance lies very much among objects, with pictures such as these.

The pictures are silent witnesses of Nazi crimes, and prompt renewed discussion of those crimes. When trying to analyze the legal ownership of these pictures, we discover how difficult it is for the heirs of Nazi victims to get back the belongings wrongfully taken from their grandparents. The law books aren’t up to handling the repair of acts of political perversion.

Many of the Gurlitt pictures represent injustice itself. And yet they should not have been seized: The law isn’t about getting pictures to talk. The law is only there to ascertain guilt and mete out punishment.

Cornelius Gurlitt was not directly responsible for the crimes associated with the pictures: He inherited the art, which is not illegal. The value of the art adds up to at least 10,000 times the amount of his alleged tax issue — 9,000 euros. In this sense, Gurlitt has suffered an injustice.

But of course the people to whom Gurlitt’s pictures formerly belonged suffered far greater injustice. It can’t be compared. Maybe the story is a ruse of history that brings us eyeball-to-eyeball with the very limits of justice and the law.

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Indigenous Women Of Ecuador Set Example For Sustainable Agriculture

In southern Ecuador, a women-led agricultural program offers valuable lessons on sustainable farming methods, but also how to end violence.

Photo of women walking in Ecuador

Women walking in Guangaje Ecuador

Camila Albuja

SARAGURO — Here in this corner of southern Ecuador, life seems to be like a mandala — everything is cleverly used in this ancestral system of circular production. But the women of Saraguro had to fight and resist to make their way of life, protecting the local water and the seeds. When weaving, the women share and take care of each other, also weaving a sense of community.

With the wrinkled tips of her fingers, Mercedes Quizhpe, an indigenous woman from the Kichwa Saraguro people, washes one by one the freshly harvested vegetables from her garden. Standing on a small bench, with her hands plunged into the strong torrent of icy water and the bone-chilling early morning breeze, she checks that each one of her vegetables is ready for fair day. Her actions hold a life of historical resistance, one that prioritizes the care of life through the defense of territory and food sovereignty.

Mercedes' way of life is also one that holds many potential lessons for how to do agriculture and tourism better.

In the province of Loja, work begins before sunrise. At 5:00 a.m., the barking of dogs, the guardians of each house, starts. There is that characteristic smell of damp earth from the morning dew. Sheep bah uninterruptedly through the day. With all this life around, the crowing of early-rising roosters doesn't sound so lonely.

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