Lost Art Coordination Office Hunters of Lost Treasures

Homepage of the Lost Art Coordination Office, Magdeburg
Homepage of the Lost Art Coordination Office, Magdeburg | Photo (detail): Screenshot

Even almost 70 years after the end of the Second World War and the rule of National Socialism in Germany, much still remains to be done where stolen and looted art is concerned.

In the end phase of the Second World War, the Americans sent a group of art experts to Europe. They were to search for cultural assets that had been confiscated and stolen by the National Socialists. Hollywood A-liner George Clooney directed and starred in a film about the so called Monuments Men that was shown in cinemas this year. Michael Franz also saw it. He is the director of the Lost Art Coordination Office (Koordinationsstelle) in Magdeburg (Saxony-Anhalt) and is very familiar with the work of the hunters of lost cultural assets. He is one himself. But: “What my staff and I do today is very different from what the historical ‘Monuments Men’ did back then,” says Franz.

Stolen and looted art in focus

Although the Coordination Point also seeks to find cultural assets confiscated by the National Socialists, Franz and his colleagues are not chasing after works of art through all of Europe. Their main task is operating the website www.lostart.de. There, anyone from anywhere in the world can enter that he or she is seeking a cultural asset or has found one. This facility is unique worldwide, and deals primarily with two kinds of works: on the one hand stolen art, i.e. all cultural assets that the National socialists appropriated during their rule in Germany. The second kind involves looted works of art. Among these are cultural assets that were misappropriated during or as a consequence of the Second World War – for instance by the Allies, who took works from German collections to their home countries.

To this day it remains unclear how many stolen and looted works of art there are at all. The list of missing cultural assets is growing longer by the day. The Coordination Office in Magdeburg is busy processing the information. However, Michael Franz and his staff depend on information from the public. “Our work begins the moment an application for a search or a report of a siting has been received by the Coordination Office,” says Franz. The applications are then investigated. “We examine whether the information we have received, for instance on provenance, in other words on the origins of the work, are plausible”, explains the director of the Coordination Office. In the rarest cases he and his team have originals available. They must do their research on the basis of the images entered into the data bank. In addition, their work is made more difficult due to the fact that almost 70 years have passed since the end of the war, and above all individual knowledge for research into provenance is lacking. Despite this, good starting points do exist. Thus, labels on the backs of paintings, for example, can reveal much about their origins, according to Franz.

Searching for fair solutions

Many of the art works were long thought to be lost. Only after the end of the Soviet Union were exhibitions held in Russia showing art works of former German owners. Then, the Coordination Office was founded in 1994.
It initially focused on looted art. 1998 stolen art emerged as an equally central issue. At that time, in the Washington Declaration, several nations committed themselves to identifying art works confiscated during the National Socialist period and to return them to their owners or their heirs. However, the Declaration is not legally binding. For Michael Franz, this is not the issue, either. “In dealing with NS looted art, the question is also about coming together to find a fair and just solution,” he says.

The purpose of the Advisory Commission, also headquartered in Magdeburg, is to find fair and just solutions. The Commission makes recommendations in individual cases. In these cases, the ways in which ownership of cultural assets has changed are traced and how the changes in ownership are to be assessed. A current recommendation, for example, involves the Guelph Treasure (Welfenschatz), a collection of reliquaries and other objects of medieval ecclesiastical art that was sold by Jewish art dealers in 1935 and whose return is now being demanded by their heirs. In this case, the commission concluded that the sale was not made under duress at the time. A return would therefore be unfair, whereby one sees that there is no uniform solution to the problem of stolen art. “Each case must be evaluated individually,” says Franz. In the future there will still be much for him and the Coordination Office to do as well. 154,000 cultural assets are described in detail and stored on the website lostart.de. In addition, there are several million summarized works such as books or archive materials. “The issue will certainly keep us busy for a long time to come,” prophesies Franz.