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Provenance research in Germany is not completely dire—but a happy solution is still a way off

Much has been done to return art looted by Nazis to owners' heirs but the momentum has slowed

When it was announced in November last year that officials in Augsburg had seized around 1,400 works of art from the 81-year-old son of an art dealer who was deeply entangled in Nazi cultural policy, the subject of provenance research suddenly gained momentum.

The Kulturstiftung der Länder, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, thought that the time had come to give an interim report on the progress of this research. After all, it was an initiative of the Kulturstiftung together with the then reigning culture minister Bernd Neumann (CDU), that managed in 2008 to kickstart continuous funding for provenance research at Germany’s museums, archives, and libraries. At the Berlin-based Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the position of “provenance researcher” was established, which has to date distributed a total of €14.3m. Around 90,000 works and objects were checked in 67 museums, as well as half a million books in 20 libraries.

At the end of January, Ronald Lauder, the president of the Jewish World Congress, gave a lecture in Berlin, in which he criticised the German museums for alleged inaction. While not the actual reason for the press conference held by the Kulturstiftung der Länder on 12 February, this talk still stood as an accusation in the room. Jürgen Walter, the cultural secretary of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, who currently leads the board of trustees of the Kulturstiftung, admitted that the issue of restitution had “for decades not received the necessary attention”. Now, however, “since the tide has turned, I find the accusations of lack of activity unjustified”. While it is true that only a small percentage of the 6,500 museums in Germany have done provenance research on their collections, only a small number of museums acquired art and objects during the Nazi era. What for example, does a castle museum, which guards 18th-century interiors, have to do with Nazi-looted art?

The number of restitutions is impressive. Over the past 15 years, since the “Washington declaration” in December 1998, through which the urgency of research and returns was made clear, an estimated 12,200 objects, including entire book collections, have been returned to their rightful owners or generally to their heirs and beneficiaries. There are no official figures, however, because no obligation to report these exists in Germany. Some restitutions may have occurred in secret, because not all heirs want to have their demands made public.

The number of currently active cases in German museums, however, is surprisingly low. Since 2000, only 58 restitutions were made in Hamburg, according to the culture senator Barbara Kisseler, and only seven of them are currently in the process of being returned. In Dresden, ten cases are currently pending. In the museums of the former East Germany, the problem is superimposed by the confiscations and expropriations of huge amounts of art and objects from princely castles during the Communist era. At the Dresden State Art Collections, an extraordinary 33 employees are currently working on provenance research. Although things do not look as good at other German museums, all major institutions have created fixed positions for provenance researchers with the understanding that the work will have to be continue for many years to come.

The aim of all this research said Hartwig Fischer, the director general of the Dresden State Art Collections, is “to have museums with no works in their possessions that cannot be legally owned”, adding that “we all want to have legally secure museums”. In this respect, German officials’ intentions seem to coincide with those of Ronald Lauder, who said in his Berlin speech: “A line must be drawn”. But this conclusion is still a ways off. Uwe Hartmann, the head of the Berlin Center for Provenance Research, said that in regard to the day-to-day activity, “the greatest part of the work still lies ahead of us.”

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28 Apr 14
15:55 CET


I've been following restitution cases in my native Austria for a while, and I'm quite surprised that no one looks at the work being done here. Though Austria has made terrible mistakes concerning looted art after the war, the restitution law established in 1998 (which was later amended to include even more works) has resulted in more than 10.000 returned objects (documented, not "estimated"). The Austrian model of state-funded provenance researchers who work within museums and submit their findings to a board for review could be an inspiration for other countries. My impression is that, despite the Washington principles, German museums still act in an uncoordinated manner, and it's strange that the Gurlitt case is being treated like lightning coming out of clear skies. There is, indeed, a lot of work still to be done, and it won't be done by isolated task forces popping up here and there. Looted art needs a coordinated effort - like the one that's been in place in Austria for 15 years.

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