How Germany commenced ‘historical justice’ returning Nazi-looted 1,500 artifacts to owners

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The German authorities had commenced inquiries into looted artifacts being in the custody of the country as far back as the early 1960s.

The German authorities had in 2012 discovered a trove of 1,500 artworks being hoarded by the son of a Nazi-era art dealer; and accordingly, commenced an investigation to find out how many were looted from Jewish owners.

Curiously, 14 of the 1,500 artworks were conclusively identified to have been looted from the Jews. Germany declared that the country had returned the last of those works to the owner’s heirs.

Subsequently, the German authorities found that 1,130 of the 1,500-art works were looted artifacts from the Benin Kingdom, Edo State, Nigeria. Arrangements are ongoing for the return of the artifacts to the Benin Kingdom in what the German authorities described as their “contributions to historical justice and fulfil moral responsibility.”

The Minister of Culture in German, Monika Grütters, had declared that the return of the work elicited an “important signal”; stating that while the repatriation could not make up for the deep suffering, it could “make a contribution to historical justice and fulfil our moral responsibility”.

It was highlighted that Das Klavierspiel (Playing the Piano) by Carl Spitzweg was owned by music publisher Henri Hinrichsen, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1942.

Spitzweg 19th Century work was said to be confiscated by the Nazis in 1939, the same year that Hinrichsen had bought it.

This was said to be bought in 1940 by Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi-era dealer, who was  given the task by Adolf Hitler, to deal in art seized from Jewish collectors and to buy up “degenerate art” removed from museums for a planned Führermuseum in the Austrian city of Linz.

The money for the Spitzweg work was said to be paid into a blocked account; so, Hinrichsen would never have received the money.

The Spitzweg work was in 2015 identified as looted, then, was handed over to the auctioneers Christie’s on Tuesday, according to the wishes of Hinrichsen’s heirs.

It was further indicated that the Gurlitt collection of 1,500 works, looted from museums as well as individuals, was initially confiscated after the war by the Allies, but Hildebrand Gurlitt managed to recover it.

Gurlitt was said to have died in the 1950s; when German authorities approached his surviving wife in 1961 in search of part of his collection, the widow claimed the works had been destroyed at the end of World War Two (WWII) by Allied bombing.

However, when German tax investigators searched the Munich flat of Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius Gurlitt, in 2012,  they surprisingly found over 1,400 of the works. Again, more 60 pieces were said to be discovered at his Austrian home in Salzburg the following year, 2013.

The son later died in 2014 without providing answers to the questions over the ownership of the collection; he was said to be shielded by a statute of limitations.

A court granting Cornelius Gurlitt’s request before death, ruled that the works could be bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts in the Swiss capital Bern.

Identifying some of the works to belong to the family, the German Lost Art Foundation had endeavoured to ascertain from the Swiss museum, who were the rightful owners of the others.

It was said that 14 pieces were conclusively identified as belonging to Jewish owners and have been returned by the German authorities.

Germany has also decided to return substantially 1,130 artifacts looted from Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. However, the Nigerian government is demanding that the whole 1,130 be returned to the country from Germany.