German research fund to uncover stolen art in private collections

The German government has announced a €3.4 million (£2.95 million) national fund to subsidise provenance research into privately-owned artworks, which may have been looted during World War II. The decision marks a departure from previous arrangements, which were used to fund research into works held by German museums and libraries. It was prompted by the 2013 discovery of the Gurlitt art trove of which five works have been identified as looted or sold under duress. A further 153 works in the hoard are suspected of being stolen.  

The government subsidy will help fund the work of the German Lost Art Foundation, which reviews applications from collectors seeking assistance with provenance research. The foundation awards grants of up to €300,000 (£260,399) to applicants to enable them to verify the origins of their family art collections and ensure they are not in possession of looted works.

The German government’s decision also echoes the sentiment of a new generation of German art collectors keen to verify the provenance of the artworks they inherited from their parents. According to the head of provenance research at the German Lost Art Foundation, Uwe Hartmann, an increasing number of private art collectors have sought to verify the provenance of their works since the Gurlitt hoard was uncovered. “In some cases… this was a subject that was taboo while their parents were alive, and the children are only willing to address it now”, Hartmann explained.

Despite the introduction of the fund, the descendants of Jews whose collections were pillaged by the Nazis remain vulnerable under German law. Unlike museums, private or corporate collectors are not compelled to restitute stolen art and are not bound by the Washington Principles, which require that institutions that have identified looted art in their collections must reach ‘just and fair solutions’ with the rightful owners.

In this legal lacuna, heirs seeking justice must continue to rely on the goodwill of private collectors and their growing awareness of the need for restitution. One collector demonstrating this awareness is Jan Philipp Reemtsma who hired a researcher to investigate the works he inherited from his father, tobacco industrialist Philipp F. Reemtsma. “I don’t want stolen goods hanging on the wall — it’s quite simple,” Reemtsma said.

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