It is a haunting calculation. A lifetime ago, in the 1930s and ’40s, the Nazis looted thousands of artworks from Jewish collectors. Many of the original owners perished with their families in the Holocaust, while the survivors have mostly succumbed to old age. If any are left, they would now be more than a century old, and it would more likely be their children or grandchildren who still carry the faded memories of the paintings that once hung in their family galleries or homes. As Ronald Lauder, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, pointed out in a German newspaper article over the weekend, those survivors are “not getting any younger.” And on Tuesday, it was this grim arithmetic that led the German government to hurry the publication of Nazi-seized paintings recently uncovered by accident in a ramshackle Munich apartment.
Images of 25 pieces of looted art — out of more than 1,400 found last year in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father was an art dealer who helped the Nazis sell off the works they seized — were posted on Tuesday on the website LostArt.de. A flood of visitors quickly overloaded the site, which issued an error message for much of the day: “Our servers are currently busy.” When it worked, the site showed the works of German painters like Otto Dix, Max Liebermann and Otto Griebel, as well as one drawing by Eugène Delacroix. The uncovered collection also includes the works of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, although these did not appear on the website.
Since their discovery was first reported on Nov. 3 in the German newsmagazine Focus, a rush of ownership claims has poured in to German authorities, who have stored the works at an undisclosed location. But at a press conference on Nov. 5, Reinhold Nemetz, the chief prosecutor in the German town of Augsburg who is overseeing the case, said that showing the works online could violate the owners’ privacy while attracting dishonest claims of ownership. “It would be counterproductive for us,” Nemetz told reporters in Augsburg. “It would endanger the investigation and endanger the artworks.” He refused to disclose any information about Gurlitt, even declining to say whether the 80-year-old recluse, who reportedly made his living by selling the works at auction, is now alive or dead.
That insistence on secrecy drew fire from Jewish rights groups. In an opinion piece published on Nov. 10, Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, himself a prominent art collector, said that “valuable time has been wasted.”
A spokesman for the German government, Steffen Siebert, then promised a change of course. “The government understands that the leaders of Jewish organizations are asking many questions right now because they often concern very old people who were victims of injustice,” the spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a press conference in Berlin on Monday. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle chimed in with a similar pledge while on a visit to India the same day. “We must be careful not to squander the trust built over many generations,” he told the German news agency DPA. “Transparency is of the highest importance right now.”
In a statement later that evening, several branches of the German government, including the Ministry of Culture and Media, announced the creation of a government task force that will study the provenance of the discovered works. Out of a total of 970 that could have been looted by the Nazis, around 590 of them may have been seized from private owners, the statement said, while 380 others were deemed “degenerate art” and confiscated from museums. “To clarify the origin of the art as quickly and transparently as possible, the provenance research will be broadly intensified,” the government’s statement said. It did not, however, explain who owns the other 400 artworks found in the younger Gurlitt’s apartment, saying only that those works had not been subject to Nazi confiscation.
For some of the families waiting to claim these works, Germany’s sudden openness feels like a tardy gesture. “This all should have been done at the beginning,” said Chris Marinello, a lawyer representing several of the claimants. Nearly two years passed before German authorities were forced to disclose the discovery of Gurlitt’s secret collection, which local tax police stumbled upon during a search of his apartment. Last week, Merkel’s spokesman admitted that the Chancellor had been informed about the find several months before it became public. So the government, now trying to head off claims of obfuscation, pledged that the catalog of Nazi-looted art would be “continuously updated” on its website.
The site has a new section devoted to this purpose, somewhat euphemistically titled Schwabing Art Fund, after the name of the Munich neighborhood where authorities found the looted works. As of Tuesday afternoon, only two dozen of the uncovered works were displayed there, and as each image on the overloaded server crept into view, it was hard not to picture the Holocaust survivors getting a chance to search for their artworks so many decades after their loss — waiting, again, for restitution.