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West Germany Buying Back Art that ‘Wandered’ During Nazi Era

December 10, 1988

BONN, West Germany (AP) _ Quietly and with limited funds, West Germany is buying back important artworks that left the country during the Nazi era.

Officials involved in the slow recovery of what Germans call their ″wandered culture″ decline to say how much they’ve spent to bring home some historically important works.

But at least $29 million is known to have been spent over the past five years in the effort the government has deliberately kept on a low key.

West Germany struggles with a particularly acute problem of exiled art because of the volume of works sold during World War II to help bankroll the Nazi war effort.

Thousands of paintings, manuscripts, sculptures and other cultural goods were salvaged from private collections or produced abroad by Jews and intellectuals hounded from their homeland by Adolf Hitler’s regime. But only a fraction of the displaced art made its way back to Germany after the war.

″We have no defined plan for buying up all the important artworks that have wandered out of the country over the years, but when the opportunity arises we make our best effort to get back what has been lost,″ explained Hans Hieronymus, who heads the Interior Ministry’s office responsible for art acquisitions.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Hieronymus produced a list of the major works repatriated over the past few months. They included three 16th century paintings by Albrecht Durer, original compositions of Richard Wagner and Robert Schumann, Franz Kafka’s 1920 manuscript of ″The Trial″ and some personal letters, and a 1463 edition of ″The Apocalypse,″ one of the earliest products of Johann Gutenberg’s block-printing press.

The most stunning indication of West Germany’s commitment to restoration of Germany’s cultural heritage was the purchase five years ago of The Gospel of Henry the Lionhearted, a handwritten, 552-page, 12th century volume that has commanded the highest price to date for a book - $18.8 million.

A government art appraiser, Hartmut Vogel, says the Henry the Lionhearted purchase was an inspiring success for West German art circles as it rewarded an unprecedented effort of cooperation among the sometimes fractious state and federal art dealers and private cultural foundations.

″This was our masterpiece acquisition, but for the most part our funds are too small to achieve much headway,″ Vogel told AP.

He alluded to the purchase in mid-November of the Kafka manuscript by the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg as a bargain at $1.98 million. But that kind of surprise acquisition is unlikely to be pulled off with any degree of frequency, he conceded.

″We have to be careful not to appear to be hunting dogs,″ said Verena Tafel, one of five art historians busy collecting works for West Berlin’s Museum of German History, expected to open in the late 1990s.

″Every national museum tries to repatriate those artworks that were lost during the Nazi regime,″ Ms. Tafel said. ″But being too aggressive can have the result of driving the prices up.″

An official with the Interior Ministry who spoke only on condition of anonymity said recovery of famous German works from abroad is an important facet of the government’s acquisition policy, ″but we’d be stupid to publicly present this as a campaign.″

He explained that a restrained profile in the international art market is essential in outbidding hesitant competitors, and for West German buyers to put out the word that they are embarked on a repatriation project would serve only to price themselves out of the market.

Ms. Tafel noted, however, that museum collectors have to maintain a delicate balance between discretion and enlisting popular support. After learning of the West German government’s plan to open a historical museum in West Berlin, she said, the St. Louis Science Center this fall returned free of charge an early German-made scientific model of the human body that had been taken out of the country during the Nazi period.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government agreed to return about 6,200 paintings and drawings from the Nazi period that were confiscated at the end of World War II. The propaganda artworks commissioned by Hitler to depict model soldiers and citizens are currently in storage at the Bavarian Army Museum in Ingolstadt pending official decisions on how they should be presented.

In cases where outright purchase is the only means of retrieving expatriated artworks or items of special interest for German museums, West German buyers concede they are fighting a losing battle against wealthy Japanese collectors and British and American curators with claims to significantly larger private funding sources.

Sabine Fehlemann, director of the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, traveled to London on Nov. 28 with authorization to bid as high as $5.8 million for Pablo Picasso’s ″The Acrobat and the Young Harlequin.″ The bidding was opened at $8.6 million and closed with the $38.6 million offer of Tokyo collector Akio Nishino.

The 1905 masterpiece was a treasured possession of Wuppertal until 1937, when Nazi forces confiscated the painting, declared it ″degenerate art″ and sold it to a Swiss collector for 80,000 Swiss francs.

″I thought we had little chance,″ Ms. Fehlemann said after the auction. ″But I wanted to see our Picasso just once more before it disappears into a Japanese repository.″

West German state collectors contend they enjoy fewer advantages in the international art arena than their competitors because of the dearth of private foundations to generate funds for public acquisitions.

The Interior Ministry’s Hieronymus explained that public offerings of important artworks often are advertised only a few weeks or days prior to the auction, triggering a scramble for donations from each of the 10 West German states, the federal government and the public foundations. The cumbersome effort often serves to stall presentation of a reasonable bid, he conceded.

Increasingly priced out of the market for the best-known works, the state collectors have concentrated instead on preventing the further migration of German treasures.

Under a 1955 law that charges the state with protecting national culture, some 1,000 artworks in West Germany are designated by the government as national valuables, restricting though not prohibiting their sale or exchange abroad.

″We have to concentrate on preventing further losses,″ Ms. Tafel said.

″In general, if a famous German work of art is on public display in another country, that’s enough to make us happy,″ she said. ″We’re not like Melina Mercouri (the former actress who is Greece’s culture minster) - we don’t insist that everything must come back.″

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