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EditoriaL: Germany Needs a New art Restitution law
Germany needs a new art restitution law
Cornelius Gurlitt, the heir and keeper of the ‘degenerate art’ hoard found in Munich, now says he will not return the art, according to the Der Spiegel, who interviewed him. “No, no, no,” he was quoted as saying, when asked if he would return the art to the rightful owners. There is something terribly wrong with this.
It has been two weeks since the story broke, that German police found over 1400 paintings, many looted from Jewish victims of Nazi terror, in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt. The raid took place 18 months ago, in Munich and is the largest find in modern history.
The attitude of Gurlitt is painful and bitter news for the hundreds of Nazi victims and their heirs who were looking for closure regarding their lost family possessions, hoping they where included in the “Gurlitt” find. Now, there is little that can be done. There is no clear law in place in Germany to go after looted art that is in private hands.
“This is a tragedy for everyone and it is the tip of the iceberg. There are many more Gurlitts out there, and Germany has to use this debacle to fix a broken art restitution process,” said Mel Urbach and Markus Stoetzel . “This is an emotional roller-coaster for our clients, and it needs legislation from Germany. There is not enough predictability under current German law, when it comes to artwork, and so museums and private collectors can frustrate and derail claims.”
“Germany is the vanguard, the moral compass, of Europe. This is the last chance for Germany to do the right thing; we need a Uniform Art Restitution law for artifacts and cultural items that were taken from victims under terror,” Mel Urbach said. “If you were Jewish, your assets were up for grabs by the nearest Nazi.”
Germany has taken a leading role in restitution in the past, for example the return of houses and pensions. It has agreed to tackle art restitution with the Washington and the Joint Declarations of 1998 and 1999. In 2003 it set up the “Limbach Commission” which functions remarkably well, but has unfortunately only had a handful of cases.
Many museums and even the German Government do not want to go to the Limbach Commission and private individuals like Gurlitt, are not included in the declarations. The result: they use the “Gurlitt” option. This is a major flaw that needs to be fixed, now, while some of the victims are still alive.
The lack of a clear law and the resulting ambiguity has a chilling effect on moral justice and defies the Washington Principles and the Joint Declaration, which call for the abolition of technical defenses. “Gurlitt” sounds like a technical defense, ambiguity sounds like a technical defense, unilaterally not agreeing to go to the Limbach Commission, sounds like a technical defense.
This is about returning stolen culture seized from victims of the Nazis. Having only soft law, allows the heirs of the culprits to triumph over the victims by escaping through technical defenses.
“Germany is at a crossroad: Now the opportunity has come for the right thing to be done”, says Mel Urbach.
For Further information contact:
Law Offices of Mel Urbach
275 Madison Ave – Suite 1105
New York, NY 10016, USA
Phone: 201 984 4720
Rechtsanwalt Markus H. Stötzel
Phone: +49 (0)6421 794-560