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Germany

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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