Germany’s Culture Minister Admits Commission on Nazi-Looted Art ‘Not Living Up to Responsibilities’

Germany’s Culture Minister Admits Commission on Nazi-Looted Art ‘Not Living Up to Responsibilities’

Shiryn Ghermezian

German Culture Minister Claudia Roth is seen in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Photo: Reuters/Imago Images

Germany’s Minister of Culture Claudia Roth has promised that the government will implement changes to the German independent national advisory commission on Nazi-confiscated cultural property, admitting that its current framework is “inadequate.”

“We are not living up to our responsibilities. We want a more modern and stronger commission,” Roth said at an event last week marking the 20th anniversary of the panel’s founding, according to The Art Newspaper.

The commission, which includes 10 members, offers recommendations on claims related to Nazi-looted art that is in the possession of public institutions. Since its founding 20 years agoit has issued only 23 recommendations on cases submitted by the heirs of those persecuted by the Nazis.

In a memorandum issued earlier this month, the panel called for an “urgent overhaul” including a new restitution law in Germany. The document also asked that victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs be able to initiate a case before the commission even if the opposing party does not agree to the proceedings — currently both sides must agree to an appeal for a case to move forward — and demanded that the commission’s recommendations be legally binding, not just advisory.

“The advisory commission should become a deciding commission,” Hans-Jürgen Papier, a former constitutional judge who leads the commission, said at last week’s event.

In response, Roth promised three changes to the commission, The Art Newspaper reported. She said the panel can be called on to help settle a claim even if asked to do so by just one party involved, instead of needing both sides to agree to the panel’s participation. The panel should also be involved in a case early on and able to commission its own provenance research, no longer needing to rely on findings provided by disputing parties, according to Roth.

The minister said the German government, states, and municipalities will also modify the “Handreichung,” which are guidelines created in 1999 on restituting art from public collections to the heirs of victims — mostly Jews — persecuted by the Nazis.

Roth did not respond to the commission’s demands about a new restitution law. However, if her other changes are implemented, it could affect a dispute over Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Madame Soler (1903). The Bavarian State Painting Collections and the state of Bavaria refused to submit the painting to the panel for examination, claiming the portrait was not sold as a result of Nazi persecution. But “the job of deciding whether this work should be viewed as looted is the commission’s, and not the affected institution,” the panel said.

If the new reforms mentioned by Roth are enacted, the heirs of Jewish banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who previously owned the painting, could present their claim in front of the advisory commission without Bavaria agreeing to it.

“We welcome this unconditional path to an independent review if victims’ families request it,” Ulf Bischof, the lawyer representing the heirs, told The Art Newspaper. “This change will not only affect Madame Soler, but many other disputed cases, and it is long overdue.”

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