It is a rare occurrence that a news story is quite as satisfying as this week’s announcement of the discovery of 1500 modernist masterpieces in a flat in Munich. First and foremost, the rediscovery of such an amount of artworks thought lost, perhaps destroyed by Allied bombs, is a victory for the art-loving world. There is also another side though, and that is that in a world made up of shades of grey, this appears to be a clear – if delayed – triumph for the good.
These paintings, the illicit collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, certainly constitute the most significant treasure trove of lost art in recent history. The full list of works that make up the collection has not yet been released, but it is believed that at least 300 of the pieces were taken from the infamous exhibition of degenerate art in Munich in 1937. Other paintings are believed to have been the property of Jewish collectors forced to flee Germany. Most excitingly, the haul is said to include previously unknown pieces by Marc Chagall and Otto Dix. That these ill-gotten gains of war and persecution are finally to be returned is heartening. Decades on, justice is finally being done.
The return of looted art is often a difficult prospect though. The advent of the internet and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have made the practical side of the repatriation of appropriated artworks easier than ever before. 2013 alone has seen four pieces from the Louvre returned to the families of Jewish collectors, 139 pieces from Dutch museums identified and catalogued as potentially plundered, and an announcement from the Hungarian government that they would begin returning stolen pieces from their museums. It is, however, in these cases that we see the shades of grey return to the issue.
Few people would argue against returning the paintings from Gurlitt’s flat to their rightful owners, but what if the disputed pieces were in galleries, rather than hidden behind boxes of noodles? Of course the paintings ‘should’ still be returned, but the actual effect of that becomes the opposite of the Munich case – paintings not becoming available for the public to enjoy, but being taken away from them. That was the case with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street Scene, which was returned from the Brucke Museum in Berlin to the original owner’s family in 2006, sold for £24 million, and taken away from the public.
Even when restitution keeps the work in a museum, the issue is rarely simple. Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was returned to its original owners from an Austrian gallery in 2006 and sold for $135 million to Ronald Lauder for his Neue Galerie in New York. As Jonathan Jones writes in the Guardian,
This painting of a Jewish collector had shone in Vienna as a glorious reminder of the Jewish character of this city in the golden age of Klimt and Freud. In removing it, and selling it abroad, the campaigners for restitution actually diminished the evidence of Vienna’s Jewish heritage in the city itself – a strange victory for truth.
While art plunder has been linked near-inextricably with Nazi Germany in the public mind, they were by no means the first or last offenders. The British Museum is a monument to light British fingers – the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone being the two strongest sources of controversy. Likewise, the Louvre would have a far less impressive collection without Napoleon’s well-documented plundering efforts. In the United States, article 36 of the military’s Lieber Code specifically authorised the plunder of works of art in wartime. These cases are not treated in the same manner as the works looted by the Nazis, perhaps because of historical distance, but perhaps just because of the nature of the perpetrators.
Of course, Germany lost art in World War Two too, mainly to the systematic looting carried out by the invading Soviet Army. The best-known examples include the ‘Baldin Collection’ of 364 artworks, and the Eberswalde Hoard of Bronze Age artefacts found in Berlin, both of which now rest in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. The Eberswalde Hoard prompted a minor international incident in June of this year, when Angela Merkel used a trip to Russia to call for the return of the artefacts. A BBC correspondent noted that the Russian position in the past has been that plundered art was “paid for with the blood of Soviet soldiers“.
It is this consideration above all that makes the repatriation of looted art such a difficult issue to navigate. Not only are there unfathomable sums of money involved (the Munich artworks are said to have “a value so high that it cannot be estimated”), but also strong emotions and painful memories. Each disputed artwork can speak of conquest and subjugation, triumph and defeat, nations and families – all at once. Such is the result of mixing two subjects as emotive as art and war. The Munich discovery is likely to lead to great complications in the future, but for now it is simply cause for celebration.