Looted art from the nazi era: pieces with flaws

Hamburg’s Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe is dedicated to the origin of looted art. The stories are interesting, but not very descriptive.

Are the works of art that a museum acquired during the "Third Reich" legitimately there? Visitors don’t always find out. Image: Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe

The owners are long dead: The silver cups, plates and goblets lying in a display case look like grave goods. On the one hand, the "looted art" exhibition at Hamburg’s Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe looks like a junk room from a household liquidation, on the other hand, like a looted grave. The catalog illustrates this even more starkly: In a wooden box photographed from above, spoons once owned by Jews lie as if they were bones.

Such macabre symbolism is entirely appropriate for the topic of provenance research: after all, it’s about things that the Nazi regime took from the people it deported and murdered. From 1938, Jews had to hand over their silver: The metal was needed for war preparations, ridiculous payments were made and the whole thing was declared as a "donation of metal to the Reich".

However, not everything was melted down: in 1940, the Hamburg Senate bought 2,000 kilos of this silver from the Reich, 30,000 objects that were distributed among the museums. An action between preservation and greed.

After the war, the British occupation forces and the cultural authorities ordered restitution. The burden of proof lay with the victims, and so for years survivors and heirs traveled from all over the world to prove what belonged to them by means of photos, documents and drawings.

Much was returned at that time, but not everything: In 1958, Hamburg made compensation payments to the Jewish Trust Corporation for things whose owners could not be found. The remaining silver – still about a ton – was in turn distributed among Hamburg’s museums. There it lies now in the depots, nobody knows the rightful owners; a flaw remains.

Provenance research itself is also afflicted with such a flaw, say the Hamburg exhibition organizers: the public associates provenance research with loss, with the return of museum exhibits. They want to counter this prejudice.

In the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe, there were spectacular negotiations, for example, over the "Hall of Mirrors" of the "Budge Palais," which the Nazis seized in 1937 and which was dismantled and rebuilt in the museum after the war, when the music academy moved in. In 2010, the heirs demanded restitution, and in 2011 Hamburg paid a compensation sum.

But the bulk of provenance research concerns far smaller objects: bowls from Syria, Renaissance madonnas and furniture, 16th- to 18th-century Asiatica. The exhibition displays 100 such items in two ceiling-high showcases, which, printed with red triangular splinters, mimic the design of Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind.

And inside, draped on red cloths: porcelain from the Asiatica collection of Philipp Furchtegott Reemtsma, the father of Jan Philipp Reemtsma; 319 objects from his collection came to the Hamburg museum in 1996, 91 of which have an unquestionable provenance, the rest do not.

Then there is a small Renaissance Venus made of bronze, which belonged to the Frankfurt art dealer Wilhelm Henrich. He cooperated with the regime and sold, among other things, artifacts that the Gestapo had looted from Jews. The origin of these objects is unclear.

Next to them are antique Syrian glasses from the Munich collector Oskar Zettler. The museum bought them in 1937 – the exhibition sign now reads: "There is still a need for research," and this is a formulation that is as discreet as it is obfuscating, which is of little help to the layman: Are there restitution claims? Are negotiations underway?

The provenance-related text shines with a cryptic telegram style that researchers presumably use internally: Inventory number, vocabulary such as "security transfer" and "placed in Lost Art" can be found there. In the Lost Art database mentioned above, descendants of expropriated Jewish Nazi victims can obtain information, but only those in the know know that.

And what might it mean when the inscription concludes with the simple words "In the museum since 1950"? There is also no information about how many of the 600 museum objects acquired during the "Third Reich" are legally there.

It is extremely disconcerting that an exhibition on this topic, of all things, uses the word "Reichskristallnacht" in the wall text: Already in the early 1990s, victims’ associations sought to replace this trivializing term in public discourse with "Reichspogromnacht". And the Hamburg museum has now been conducting its provenance research since 2010.

"Looted Art?": until November 1, Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg

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