/Returning goods looted by Nazis

Returning goods looted by Nazis

Weimar, Germany (dpa) – Whether it’s a million-dollar piece of art, or a 1930s travel guide that may be of great sentimental value to a family, Franziska Bomski’s team gives it their full attention. “In every suspected case of Nazi-confiscated goods or wartime looting, we dedicate the same amount of in-depth research, and we draw no differences between [the cases],” explains the director of provenance research at the Klassik Stiftung Weimar.

Since 2010, Germany’s second-biggest cultural foundation has been investigating the provenance of items in its collections that it suspects could have been looted or acquired under circumstances such as forced sales. “We try to reach just and fair solutions with potential heirs; we don’t want to parade illegally obtained property,” says Bomski.

Of 5,486 suspected cases, dating from between 1933, when Hitler came to power, and 1939, the year World War II broke out, the teams were able to reclassify 2,300 as above board. More than a quarter of the objects no longer belonged to the foundation or were not available. In 28.4 per cent of cases, looting could not be ruled out, and so the investigations continue.

“Only 136 – 2.5 per cent of all cases – had clearly been seized as a result of persecution,” according to historian Sebastian Schlegel. He, Bomski, another academic and a legal expert are the ones tasked with searching for potential heirs to the looted artworks.

What makes their work difficult is that, after so many decades, a lot of the documents and inventories are no longer complete. Indeed, some objects in the foundation’s collections have never been listed on any inventory, while others are inexactly described.

But at least one of their cases was solved easily and quickly. It concerned two letters by the German poet Goethe, one of which was written to Caroline von Wolzogen, the sister-in-law of the writer Friedrich Schiller, in 1827.

In the Goethe and Schiller archive, the largest literary archive in Germany and which is also run by the foundation, the researchers found a letter from Reinhard Heydrich, the director of the Reich Security Head Office, to Fritz Sauckel, regional leader of the Nazi party in the eastern state of Thuringia.

In the letter, dated 1941, Heydrich writes that the Goethe letters had been confiscated by the Gestapo two years earlier in Vienna from a Jewish woman named Josefine Lechner and that they should now be passed on to the archive in Weimar. Lechner escaped the Nazi war machine and was able to emigrate to Switzerland, where she died in 1955. The researchers were able to trace her descendants with the help of the Vienna Israelite Community (IKG), and in 2011, the letters were returned to them. The archive retained copies.

In another case, involving a collection of 2,000 almanacs that had originally belonged to the Leipzig businessman Arthur Goldschmidt, the heir, the Jewish Claims Conference and the foundation came to a different agreement. The almanacs, which cover three centuries, were acquired by the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar in 1936, when Goldschmidt was forced to sell them at the knock-down price of 2,000 reichsmarks.

When the library got in touch with the heir regarding their return, it offered to buy them. According to the foundation, it resulted in one of the biggest restitution settlements in German library history.

A similar settlement was agreed on with the heirs of a tapestry that had been acquired by the foundation’s art collection in 1935 at the compulsory auction of a Jewish family’s belongings. The 1.7-by-5.9-metre tapestry by the Flemish tapestry weaver Seger Bombeck dates to around 1555 and shows Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation.

The heirs of the Oppenheimer family, which originally owned it, had already laid claim to the tapestry in 2003. Two years later, the foundation was able to buy it back with the help of the Ernst von Siemens art foundation.

The provenance research team is funded until 2021 and is currently investigating cases dating from between 1940 and 1945. “For this period there’s almost 6,000 suspected cases,” says Schlegel.

The long-term goal is to investigate all of the foundation’s collections for objects up until the present time that could have been gained as a result of looting or forced sales, adds Bomski. That’s because even objects acquired after World War II could have originally been stolen. 

The foundation received state funding for 50 per cent of its provenance research costs for six years, but from 2017 has had to fund the programme itself.