Art Nerd: Looking at the History of Looted Art in the wake of the Munich Discovery

In the past few weeks it’s come to light that five years ago German officials came upon a trove of hundreds of artworks by modern masters that a) were never known to exist or b) were known to have disappeared at the time of the Holocaust.  In the wake of this discovery, the DePaul History of Art and Architecture sponsored a lecture by Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, a Law Professor at the DePaul Law School.  The beginning of the lecture was mostly background on the Nazi infatuation with art and their looting (anything you’d’ve known if you’ve seen the documentary The Rape of Europa, which I HIGHLY recommend because it’s amazing).  Here’s the trailer, but the whole version is actually on youtube as well.

But then we looked at some particular cases that have come up in the past as a consequence of the Nazi looting history and how it might shed some light on potential future cases with these newly found works.

For the record, the top two most stolen works in all of art history are the Altar of Ghent and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, being repeatedly looted and returned to their homes by the likes of Napoleon and Hitler.

 

 

open-altarpiece

Madonna_michelangelo

As for examples of more, uh, “degenerative” art, here is one that was successfully returned to the original family and one that failed to meet the statute of limitations:

This work was recently returned to the Rosenbergs, prominent Parisian art dealers

This work was recently returned to the Rosenbergs, prominent Parisian art dealers

One of my personal favorite artists, the case to return this Schiele painting failed under New York law.

One of my personal favorite artists, the case to return this Schiele painting failed under New York law.

Regarding the issue as a whole, museums are largely criticized for relying on technical defenses that could potentially prevent owners from making their case of ownership.  But it is also noted that the most convincing claims to ownership are being settled outside of the court, too.  But, ya know, still.

Anyway, it seems these new Munich discoveries can be split into four categories:

  1. Pieces the man had owned
  2. Degenerate art removed from German Museums which he may’ve legally acquired
  3. Stolen works
  4. Works sold under duress (considered an equivalent to theft)

If you want to stay updated on the issue, http://www.lootedart.com/ is on top of it.  It seems, though, that this is only the tip of the iceberg with many more discoveries and issues of provenance and histories to sort out over the coming years. I can’t wait!

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