The Daily Telegraph, 15 February 2003David Gritten
Last September a minor government official ushered an 83-year-old woman named Lili Gutmann, together with half a dozen members of her family, into a large storage unit in Rijswijk, a small Dutch town near the Hague. Inside were 233 items belonging to the family, ranging in size from a small saucer to a large tapestry, and including glasses, photographs, mirrors, chairs, doorknockers and cushions.
Lili Gutmann had not seen them since 1938, the year she left her family home in Heemstede, Holland, to get married in Italy. She never saw her parents again; they perished in Nazi concentration camps. After the Second World War, Lili and her older brother Bernard returned to the house, only to find it stripped bare; the Nazis had seized their possessions and art treasures.
These items had been appropriated 60 years ago by the Dutch Government, which keeps all its art collections that are not on show in galleries inside a huge Rijswijk office block under tight security. For the Gutmanns, the climactic day on which they reclaimed their property was a curious blend of quiet satisfaction and banal, bureaucratic routine.
Also in the family group that day were Lili's nephews, Nick and Simon Goodman, who now live in Los Angeles but were born and raised in England, where their parents anglicised their surname. 'Inside, it was like a mini-warehouse with bare walls,' recalls Simon. 'But they'd done a nice job,' adds Nick. 'They'd laid our possessions out a little bit. Everything was tagged.'
Although it was 64 years since she had seen them, Lili recognised every object. 'She walked in and said, "This chair was in my mother's bedroom. This was her desk. This was her chair",' says Simon. 'It's amazing how much she remembered. There was a sweet moment with the family silver. She didn't dare touch it because as a kid she'd been told she couldn't go near it; it was too precious.'
It was an emotional day. Lili had almost given up hope of ever seeing these family heirlooms again, while for Nick and Simon it was the culmination of a decade-long quest. But reactions in the room varied wildly: the brothers, especially Simon, found tears welling up in their eyes; Lili remained impassive. 'She's a tough lady,' says Simon. 'And she's had to be. People who survived the war don't get in touch with their emotions like those of us who came through the Sixties. 'They have that British-style stiff upper lip.'
'At one point I put my arm round Lili,' adds Nick, 'and asked how she was doing. "Oh," she said, "I'm OK." She wasn't totally ignoring it, but for her it's been years of cauterising her emotions.'
The Gutmanns' possessions might be missing still but for the determination and tenacity of Anne Webber. She runs the Commission for Looted Art in Europe from a handsome 18th-century townhouse near Baker Street in London, heading a small, under-funded team comprising a co-chairman, an art historian, researchers, translators and a handful of part-time volunteers. And it was she who persuaded the Dutch Government to return the family's items that had been appropriated.
The Commission was founded in 1999, and its workload has grown rapidly; elderly people inundate Webber with distressing stories of family art treasures looted or forcibly purchased by the Nazis during the war. 'It's traumatic for many of them to talk about,' she says. 'Some have such personal memories of these art works, and all of them are connected to this terrible experience.' Funded wholly by donations from individuals and foundations, the Commission offers many of its services free.
'We're currently working on over 100 cases,' says Webber. 'That involves probably 4,000 different objects.' They include paintings, tapestries, silver and jewels that were seized from Jews and other families, or became the subject of 'forcible sales' - that is, traded for a fraction of their true value. It is believed the Nazis stripped Europe of a fifth of its art treasures; they preferred Old Masters to the 'degenerate' Impressionists or Surrealists. One estimate suggests art treasures worth an astonishing £20 billion are still missing.
Art looting by the Nazis had its roots in one of Hitler's more bizarre ambitions: to turn Linz, the provincial Austrian market town where he spent his teens, into the cultural capital of the Third Reich. He envisaged theatres, an opera house and concert halls; but a Fuehrermuseum, boasting the greatest art collection ever assembled, would be Linz's crowning glory. Hitler knew all about the art treasures in the collections of Europe's prominent Jewish families, and soon after Germany annexed Austria, he put his plans into action. Thus began the most appalling act of cultural barbarism in European history. There was no question of acquiring these art works legitimately. The Nazis amassed them the quick, easy way: by confiscating them, often on the day their Jewish owners were herded off to death camps.
The Gutmanns were no exception. In 1943 Lili's parents, heirs to the wealthy German family who founded the Dresden Bank, realised their position in Nazi-occupied Holland was vulnerable, even though their family had converted from Judaism to Christianity a generation before. They negotiated a safe passage to Florence, where they were to be reunited with Lili. But before they could leave, two SS men knocked at the door, and they were dispatched to separate camps, where they died. Lili, knowing nothing of this, waited in vain for them at the railway station in Florence for two days.
For 50 years after the war, such outrages were barely discussed. Only now is the topic of looted art on an international public agenda. Why the delay? 'It's a misunderstanding to think people weren't looking all that time to recover their family's works of art,' says Webber. 'But for a long time there was no one to help them.'
Their search was daunting. Some governments, such as Germany's and Austria's, imposed post-war restitution deadlines (1948 and 1969 respectively); when they expired, progress in returning art works to rightful owners halted. It was also long assumed that much looted art ended up behind the Iron Curtain; many works of art in Nazi hands were confiscated by small units of the Red Army known as 'trophy brigades'. But until the Iron Curtain was lifted, the art was hard to trace. Lastly, many Holocaust survivors understandably wanted to put the horrific episode behind them, and were reluctant to hunt for their art treasures; in some cases, their children and grandchildren have taken up the challenge. Their task has been made easier with the emergence of the internet, which speeds the flow of information across national boundaries.
Whatever the reasons for delay, the restitution of looted art works is finally gathering momentum. But for the Goodman brothers, both in their 50s, it has been a longer journey than they first thought. After their father Bernard, Lili's brother, died almost penniless in 1994, they learnt of his doomed, obsessive 50-year quest to find his parents' lost possessions and reclaim his family's heritage. He was a travel agent, and each time his work took him abroad, whether to Germany, France, Holland or Switzerland, he would take a detour to try to track down family heirlooms.
Despite all his research, he was able to unearth only a handful of paintings and antiques - and they all had to be resold immediately to repay family debts and legal fees. But the vast majority eluded him, and though he kept searching, he stopped talking about them. Only when Nick and Simon talked to Lili did they realise how many family treasures were still missing, and the extent of their father's detective work.
The brothers resumed the search, setting out to find a missing Degas pastel, Landscape with Smokestacks, that had once belonged to their grandparents. During the war they had sent it to France for safekeeping, but it disappeared mysteriously. In 1996, ploughing through art books in a Los Angeles library, Simon finally came upon a photograph of the lost painting, and its listed owner: Daniel Searle, a pharmaceuticals tycoon from Chicago who had paid $850,000 for it a decade before, and seemed genuinely innocent of its dubious origins. When the Goodmans contacted him in 1996 to say the painting had been stolen, Searle hired a lawyer whose initial reaction was to scorn their claim.
At this time, Webber, a tall, striking woman with an imposing mane of dark hair, was a documentarian who had worked for the BBC and ITV. 'I had made films about subjects ranging from debutantes to women in prison,' she says. She grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Manchester, and read anthropology at London University. But despite her interest in the arts, there was little in her background to suggest her eventual vocation.
She decided to follow the legal dispute between Searle and the Gutmanns, directing and producing a documentary about their case: Making a Killing, which was later broadcast on Channel 4. In the documentary, she interviewed Searle and took Lili Gutmann back to her old family house, where Lili plaintively told the cameras, 'We have so little of what was our life', adding that the return of the Degas would be 'something to remind us of the life of our parents'.
On completing the film, Webber sent Searle a copy. He was so moved by it that he phoned her and said, 'I think I ought to settle.' The ownership was split, with the Art Institute of Chicago buying the family's share. A plaque now beside the painting on display at the institute confirms it belongs to the Gutmanns.
'I helped resolve that dispute because I was the only person speaking to both sides,' recalls Webber. 'Things were getting polarised, and $1 million was spent on legal fees even before the case reached court. The film took some time to get commissioned, because in 1996 and 1997 looted art wasn't something anyone knew much about. But inevitably, during filming I did a huge amount of research and found it fascinating.'
It just so happened that the Gutmann family's fight to reclaim their possessions has become the most important case concerning Nazi art-looting in post-war history. But if Webber's involvement was largely circumstantial, her newly acquired expertise proved timely.
After decades of silence in the art world about the subject, in 1998 the US State Department organised a conference in Washington DC about looted art, calling together 44 nations to discuss restitution issues. From that conference emerged a set of principles for dealing with this area of cultural property. The Commission for Looted Art in Europe was established three months later: 'We were set up because no one in Europe was dealing with all these issues,' says Webber.
Families now approach the Commission from all over the world; likewise, their looted works might be anywhere.
'These people may have started off living in Vienna, fled to Shanghai, then Australia,' says Webber. 'They may have had three paintings, each of which have gone in completely different directions, and through any number of owners. So to give you clues you need to call on people in various countries, experts on particular painters or archives.
'The work we do is unique. Some people don't have photographs of the object. They may not know who it was by or, if it's a book, when it was published. Many people have a description; they know roughly who the artist was, but they don't have a title, and they may just have a reproduction. We start by identifying the object, then see if we can document it - where it's been, where it was acquired from, and where it is now. And if we can learn where it is now, we see whether we can recover it. So we do all the stages.'
Webber has recently established the Central Registry (www.lootedart.com), a website linked to the Commission and housed in the same building. It lists details from 40 countries of 20,000 objects looted by the Nazis. 'It's a single database,' says Webber, 'and people can search for items by cities, countries, dealers and types of objects. It's charting a history that hasn't been told before.'
The Gutmanns kept in touch with Webber after her film was completed, and towards the end of the Commission's first year, she was helping them again, starting long negotiations with the Dutch Government when it became clear that it was holding Gutmann family items in its museums. In 2001 she proposed that the Dutch Government set up an independent commission to deal with such cases. They agreed, and within six months she received a fax from the minister of culture stating that 233 items would be returned to the Gutmanns. 'Until then, we had no idea they held so many,' she says.
All this begs a huge question: given the knowledge that the Nazis looted vast quantities of art, how can thousands of items still be missing? The answer reflects badly on the entire art world. Willi Korte, who tracks down stolen art from his suburban house in Washington DC, says bluntly, 'Curators, auction houses, art dealers, collectors had all kinds of knowledge. No part of that community has any interest in helping victims reclaim their paintings.' Especially, one imagines, considering that the value of art has shot up astronomically in the past 50 years. Clearly, many people looked the other way as the provenance of paintings (their origin or history of ownership) was falsified or glossed over; why rock the boat when everyone on board is getting rich?
But Webber prefers to look to the future, establishing codes of conduct under which governments and the art world can agree to operate, rather than dwelling on past sins. A good example was a pair of 18th-century landscapes by the Bohemian artist Norbert Grund, looted by the Nazis in Holland in 1941 from a private family collection, and sent to Berlin. In 2001 both appeared at the Dorotheum, Vienna's state-owned auction house, where a German vendor had sent them. Despite a lack of catalogue information, they were identical to images of missing works, which the Commission held.
Webber and her team learnt of the auction only three days before it took place, and after long negotiations, persuaded the Dorotheum to withdraw the paintings from sale with just two hours to go. When it became clear that the auction house planned to ship them back to the vendor, the Commission successfully urged the Dorotheum to keep them in safe custody. Webber is now finalising an agreement to return the paintings to their rightful owners. 'It was the first time this had happened in Austria,' she says. 'It set a precedent of good practice for auction houses everywhere.'
But it should not be assumed that only foreign museums, governments and auction houses have reason to feel embarrassed. Around the time the Commission was established, the British Government asked museums to check their collections for looted works of art, and set up a committee to supervise this task. (Webber sits on this committee.)
Last October the British Museum announced that it was accepting a claim by the Commission in respect of four Old Master drawings 'wrongfully seized by the Gestapo from a private collection' in 1939. The museum and Commission are now working out a mutually agreed resolution.
Recently Webber also negotiated the return to the same private collection of 135 Old Master drawings that were in the Czech Republic. It took two years to negotiate, but that haul brought her tally of restitution for 2002 to 400 objects. 'We'll never do it again,' she sighs. 'Usually, the returns come in fours and fives.'
Then there is the case of the Glanville family. Two siblings, Marietta and Ernest, now in their 70s, approached the commission in 1999 to help it recover an enormous 1898 triptych, The Three Stages of Life by Count Leopold von Kalckreuth. It had been looted by the Nazis when the family fled their Vienna home in 1938. 'The picture was an icon for me,' Marietta tells me in her north London home. 'It hung in our dining-room, which was quite posh. One peeped inside, almost as if one was approaching an altar. I was eight years old when we had to leave Vienna.'
The Kalckreuth had been a gift from Marietta's grandfather to her mother Elizabeth on her wedding day. Like Bernard Goodman, Elizabeth Glanville tried for years to hunt down the picture. 'Mother was forever writing letters,' recalls Marietta. 'It became almost a family joke - Kalckreuth again! But she was a sentimental lady, and it meant a great deal to her.'
After 23 years, Elizabeth discovered the triptych in the Bavarian State Paintings Collection, and had been acquired in 1942 from a private collector (this turned out to be a mysterious countess, who has never been traced). But Elizabeth was told that such claims for restitution had expired in 1948. 'She was offered a derisory ex gratia payment, which she did not accept,' says her daughter. Elizabeth died in 1983, her wishes thwarted.
But by the time the Glanvilles contacted Webber, attitudes towards looted art had changed considerably. Webber's team established that the triptych was in the possession of the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, and lobbied the federal German Government to have it returned. No sooner did the Germans agree than an ironic discovery was made: the Kalckreuth had been loaned to the Royal Academy as part of its millennial exhibition, Art at the Crossroads. So at a ceremony at the Royal Academy, the director of the Bavarian State Paintings Collection formally handed back the triptych - the first looted artwork to be returned in Britain.
Now the Kalckreuth is in storage, and the Glanvilles are debating what to do with it. 'It's not a little piece you could hang over the mantelpiece,' says Marietta. (The work measures 162 by 294cm.) 'He's a relatively minor artist. He isn't a Degas.' Yet they have been reluctant to sell it, out of respect for the Commission's work in securing it for them. 'Anne played this extremely well,' says Marietta. 'She has helped create a climate where it has become possible to get stolen possessions returned.' The Goodmans echo this accolade: 'She's a smart woman with an enormous number of contacts,' says Nick. 'Would we have got all our stuff back without her? Possibly. But it would have been hard. She's been very helpful, and when it came down to it, she did all the negotiating. She was involved day to day. She was even prepared a few times to fly over to Holland for the day.'
Most of the Commission's clients do not want their cases made public, so increasingly the work of Webber and her team, operating on a shoestring and dependent on donations, looks like a good deed in a morally compromised world. 'There are a lot of cases out there,' she says. 'But there are many ways to settle a case: restitution, financial settlements, a range of options both parties find acceptable. You can't undo the harm that's been done. But you find a compromise.'