Study to lift veil on art theft in post-war Germany

Researchers expect a host of new restitution claims will arise out of an investigation into the expropriation of art in post-war East Germany.

The German Lost Art Foundation, the organisation established by the German government in 2015 to fund research into art theft perpetrated by the Nazis, is to receive public funding to investigate the looting of cultural property during the  Soviet Occupation and the Cold War.

While the Lost Art Foundation’s principal function is as a point of contact for all matters relating to Nazi confiscated art, it will now carry out research into the mass theft of cultural assets carried out by the Red Army and East German secret police, or ‘Stasi’, in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The Lost Art Foundation will begin by investigating the state-sanctioned theft of cultural assets ordered by the East German minister for state security, Erich Mielke, at the end of 1961. Known as ‘Aktion Licht’ (‘Operation Light’), it involved the emptying by Stasi agents of bank vaults, safes and safety deposit boxes abandoned by Jews forced to escape Nazi persecution or deported to concentration camps as well as East Germans who fled to the West.

Among the objects plundered by the Stasi were paintings by Canaletto, Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach together with gold, silver, jewels, antique clocks, porcelain and manuscripts. Several of the objects were sold to the West to raise much-needed funds for the East German regime.

In 1970, the East German authorities deployed another method of expropriation in which enormous taxes were levied on art owners living under the regime who were then forced to part with their artworks to foot the bill. The works were either acquired by East German museums or sold to the West via a warehouse in Mühlenbeck.

The Lost Art Foundation also plans to shed light on the wide-scale plunder of German museums, palaces and private stately homes by the trophy brigades of the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. Paintings, sculptures and antiques were seized and taken to the Soviet Union to make reparation for the wartime havoc wrought by Germany.

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