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Sale of Restituted Painting Leads Germany to Consider Changing Law

The recent return of an Expressionist masterpiece to its Jewish heirs has the German art world worried and Jewish groups on the defensive. And the development could impact Germany’s restitution laws.

Lawmakers have called an emergency meeting for Nov. 20, where potential changes to restitution laws will be on the table.

Federal Minister of Culture Bernd Neumann called the meeting after the recent, hotly disputed return of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene” to the heirs of the German Jewish collector and businessman, Arnold Hess.

The heirs, in turn, sold the painting to a representative of Ronald Lauder on Nov. 9 for $38 million at Christie’s auction house in New York, a record price for a German Expressionist work.

Critics say the case for restitution was flimsy, and fear a hemorrhage of modern works from German museums.

Neumann has invited lawmakers and art experts to discuss what he recently called “a theme of central cultural-political importance” — regulations for restitution of art that Jews were forced to sell, or that was stolen from them, during the Nazi era.

Reportedly under consideration are a deadline for restitution applications and the imposition of a statute of limitations.

Meanwhile, Hans-Joachim Otto, cultural expert for the Free Democratic Party parliamentary fraction, has developed his own set of recommendations after meeting Wednesday with the Claims Conference in Frankfurt.

Neither he nor the Claims Conference is invited to the Nov. 20 meeting, Otto told JTA, but his proposals are likely to be presented for parliamentary debate before the end the year.

Jewish groups are watching the proceedings with concern.

“We very strongly hope that there is no limitation put on the established restitution principles,” Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, told JTA by phone from New York. “We have made this position very clear to the German government.”

“Underlining this issue are principles of restitution of property negotiated by the Claims Conference and implemented by Germany over the past 50 years,” Taylor said. “Property that was taken from Jews cannot be retained by private German individuals or by the German state.”

According to the Washington Principles agreed upon in 1998, works must be returned once it is proven that they were confiscated by the Nazis or sold under duress of persecution.

It’s not the laws that need changing, but the procedures, Otto said.

“We agreed completely that the basic law for restitution has to be kept as it is,” he told JTA. But recent developments have “threatened to discredit the concept of restitution in the eyes of some in the German public, and among museum directors.”

Otto said he agreed with Frankfurt Claims Conference representative Georg Heuberger, longtime director of the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, that an artwork’s provenance must be clearly researched.

“We have to help the smaller museums, who cannot afford to hire their own researchers,” he said. “The Federal Cultural Foundation has to make people available who have experience and can do the research and publish it.”

Furthermore, he said, the German commission that deals with difficult restitution cases should be integrated with the Lost Art Institution in Magdeburg, and staffed by experts rather than by public figures. This joint commission should be able to respond to questions from either heirs or art institutions, he said; previously, both sides had to request assistance before the commission would step in.

Finally, he said, there must be a model for compromise in which a museum can purchase a work from heirs or request that heirs make the work available on a long-term loan basis.

“If they want to have it back, of course” they would get it, Otto said. “But we gather that one could find solutions so a collection is not lost from the outset. Most important, however, is the clear recognition that this work is to be restituted.”

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