Academic journal article Boston College International and Comparative Law Review

The Art of Atonement: How Mandated Transparency Can Help Return Masterpieces Lost during World War II

Academic journal article Boston College International and Comparative Law Review

The Art of Atonement: How Mandated Transparency Can Help Return Masterpieces Lost during World War II

Article excerpt

The works . . . which have never been recovered . . . have been lost as a result of the difficulties we faced, in Italy and elsewhere, in re-establishing the sense of morality and justice which regulates the relationships among civilized peoples.

-Rodolfo Siviero1


In September of 2010, German authorities stopped Cornelius Gurlitt on the train.2 Suspecting tax evasion, investigators eventually searched his home, where an incredible surprise was waiting for them.3 Within Gurlitt's small and somewhat dingy apartment was a cache of artwork worth an estimated $1.4 billion.4 Paintings by Picasso and Matisse, among others, which had previously been thought lost, were among the incredible treasure found.5

Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius's father, had been one of the art dealers selected by the Nazi regime to assist them in the systematic looting and forced sales of Jewish-owned artworks.6 The stripping of these artworks from Jewish owners is one of the ongoing legacies of World War II, and much of this art has yet to be returned to its original owners or their heirs.7

Since the end of World War II, international bodies and members of the international community have worked to return art looted by the Nazis to the rightful owners.8 Despite a general consensus that the pieces should be returned, there have been many impediments to following through with this belief.9 Difficulties arise when current owners feel that they have proper title to pieces, even though the works may have been forcibly sold or seized during World War II.10 Other obstacles include the striking lack of transparency within the art world, as well as technical impediments, such as statute of limitations defenses.11

Part I of this Note provides an introduction to the historical context under which art was wrongfully removed from original ownership. Part II explains the international agreements and national laws that have attempted to aid the return of this art to its rightful owners. Part III argues that a lack of transparency on the part of government and museum officials has inhibited heirs and former owners from making claims to their artwork. Part III also suggests that the international community place a mandate on officials with special access to this information to report it to an international organization charged with sharing this information with the public.


A. The Fate of Jewish-Owned Art During Nazi Occupation

Among the artwork found in Gurlitt's apartment were pieces formerly owned by Paul Rosenberg, a Jewish Frenchman and art dealer by profession.12 The fate of Paul Rosenberg's art collection was the same of that of many Jews living in occupied countries during World War II. 13 His story, and the ongoing attempt to recover art that was unlawfully taken from him during World War II, demonstrates how art owned by European Jews was specifically targeted by the Nazi regime, and how difficult it has been for owners and their heirs to locate lost art.14

While history undoubtedly remembers the Nazi regime's plan for the "Final Solution," less study is given to the regime's early efforts to disenfranchise Jews by stripping them of their assets and their right to practice various occupations.15 Many of the Third Reich's laws, including the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums), which excluded Jews from the civil service, and the Ordinance on the Registration of Jewish Assets (Verordnung über die Anmeldung des Vermögens von Juden) institutionalized the Nazi discrimination against Jews.16 This systematic approach aimed at the "exclusion of Jews from the social fabric of Nazi Germany . . . first at the destruction of their economic and cultural livelihoods, and ultimately at their physical annihilation."17 Very importantly, "[t]he incremental plundering of Jewish art collections was part of this policy."18

The motivations behind the plundering of the art were multifold. …

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