United States: Germany Relents On Nazi-Looted Art Advisory Commission Jewish Membership

Last Updated: March 14 2016
Article by Nicholas M. O'Donnell

Barely a week ago German Minister of Culture Monika Grütters was dismissively rejecting any changes to the Advisory Commission that issues recommendations on claims of Nazi-looted art in German museums. Today, in a classic Friday afternoon news dump, Germany caved to a drumbeat of pressure to include Jewish members of the Commission, pressure that began right here and continued with the support of colleagues and friends around the world. The lesson? No voice is too small to make a difference.

It is hard to believe how quickly this all happened. Less than two weeks ago, Grütters was giving a softball interview at an Oscar party that she was attending for visibility for the formidable German filmmaking industry. At the very end of the New York Times article in which she was clearly cultivating applause for giving additional (if inadequate) funding to the Gurlitt Task Force, Grütters squarely addressed—and rejected—calls to reform the Limbach Commission to include a member of the Jewish community: "We did not do this, and for good reason," because such member "would be the only voice who would be prejudiced."

Here at the Art Law Report , this quote set off alarm bells. That afternoon, we denounced the statement:

The Minister of Culture of the Federal Republic of Germany rejects out of hand that a Jewish member of the Advisory Commission could be objective. All the other German members are apparently above reproach, but not a Jewish participant. The statement is even more ironic because the suggestion that the Advisory Commission add a member of the Jewish community was suggested by none other than Hermann Parzinger, President of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), which has relied on that very Advisory Commission's recommendation not to return the Welfenschatz.

The timing was prescient because Grütters was due in New York the next day to meet with Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress and a vocal proponent of changes to Limbach. While at other public events, Grütters apparently tried to claim that "prejudiced" was a mistranslation of "critical." That is extraordinarily unlikely (assuming the original interview was even in German, about which the New York Times article does not say one way or another) since voreingenommon (prejudiced) and kritisch are hardly confusing, but also irrelevant since they accuse the hypothetical Jewish member of preconceived bias.

None of this was happening on a vacuum. As we noted at the recent withdrawal of the Flechtheim heirs from a Limbach proceeding for procedural irregularities and unfairness, Limbach in its current form has outlasted its usefulness. On March 9, prominent attorneys who have brought claims to Limbach, including my co-counsel in the Welfenschatz case Markus Stötzel and Mel Urbach, sent Grütters and the Ministry an open letter demanding change.

Still, the Ministry and Grütters were clearly planning to ignore the question and assume it would go away. It issued a press release with vague statements about considering reforms, making no promises and taking no positions.

On Wednesday, however, the sails began to take wind. Unprompted, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which is either the largest or second largest circulation newspaper in Germany and a dominant cultural voice, picked up the story, citing the March 3, 2016 Art Law Report as a source. This is when things began to get really interesting. The Ministry responded to a request for a quote that Grütters hadn't said (or meant to say) "prejudiced," but rather "a potential conflict of interest." Here, Catrin Lorch noted (my translation):m

But isn't this also true for Germans? They advise only in disputes about the return of art in German museums. In the Advisory Commission founded by the former constitutional judge Jutta Limbach, was comprised of up to eight 'voluntary, high-ranking individuals appointed from the scientific community and public life.' Among them in the past were only Germans.

The Ministry hastily put out a press release, defending the work of the Limbach Commission, but still rejecting the inclusion of "representatives of associations or associations, rather with individual independent personalities." Think about that. Even yesterday morning, the Ministry was content to say that the commission's German members were independent, implying Jewish members could not be.

By yesterday the momentum was unstoppable. Stötzel's letter had been picked up by the German press, as Kultur Radio Deutschland reported, noting support within the German cultural community.

I was interviewed last night on ARD,Germany's largest radio broadcast, and Stötzel gave a similar interview for Deutschlandradio.  As I noted, it remained unbelievable that a cabinet-level minister of Germany would say such a thing. Der Standard, Austria's largest paper, then posted an article entitled "Racist Faux Pas" to the Web (though curiously the title has since changed), challenging Grütters's meager defense.

And so this afternoon the other shoe dropped. In a stylishly self-serving statement, Grütters announced that she had recommended that the commission include "a person with a Jewish background." According to Grütters's statement (my translation), "this would be a strong trust building measure for the Jewish side." (small aside: I didn't know there were "sides" here). Der Spiegel repoertred that Lauder had called Grütters's stance "unreasonable." Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb) reported that Michael Blumenthal, former director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and United States Secretary of the Treasury, would be the nominee.

Seven days ago this was not even a story. The Ministry was dismissive of the prospect of any change, and viewed its trip to New York as another laudatory photo opportunity to garner praise for funding the Gurlitt Task Force (which was, remember, the title of the original New York Times article). But today that changed. It changed because people ranging from high profile individuals like Lauder, to well-known advocates like Stötzel and Urbach, to this blog, saw Grütters's statements and would not let them stand. And because members of the German press took notice and called out ugliness for what it was.  

Advocates for claimants of looted art are used to wide variety of smears. The lawyers make too much money. The claimants only care about the valuable paintings. It was too long ago. And so on.

None of these explain the tireless effort that happened here by friends and colleagues. I have no clients before Limbach. No one will ever pay me a thing for it. It is rather a victory for principle.

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Nicholas M. O'Donnell
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