It seems that story of the art found last year in the Munich flat is not going to be straightforward.
This art trove, consisting of painting designated “degenerate” by the Nazis, contained pieces by giants of twentieth century art such as Otto Dix and Marc Chagall. The individual holding the paintings was the son of a dealer who obtained quite a bit of art while the Nazis were in power but who died shortly after the war. When families of Holocaust victims approached his widow in the 1966, she told them that his entire collection was destroyed in a fire.
The German authorities are keeping everything close to their vests, releasing information about only a few of the artworks discovered. Their expert crowed that these were museum worthy pieces. You have to wonder how much that plays into their reluctance to allow potential claimants to have information about what was recovered. The authorities are citing privacy concerns and the difficulty establishing provenance of the works.
Survivors of the Holocaust and their families have been searching for art that was confiscated or sold for very little under coercion by the Nazis ever since the end of the war. Undoubtedly, some of the pieces recovered in 2012 will prove to belong to those families.
The issue of provenance of looted art is often labyrinthine, and not only in the cases of art looted by the Nazis. Issues around museum holdings of antiquities have been problematic for years, with Western museums being forced to return treasures to their country of origin. Art is part of the cultural landscape of a country, part of its identity.
So it is with families as well. Art is usually handed down from generation to generation, with pieces being links to their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. It is not merely a matter of money, even though the works involved are quite valuable. Art is part of who we are. It is no wonder that these families are searching so long and hard for their heritage.
It’s just a shame that the German authorities seem reluctant to help them.