High cost of returning Nazi loot in Bavaria

The Art Newspaper, 1 November 2010

Museum must reimburse the state if it restores watercolour to rightful owners

Munich. The Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich wishes to return a Rudolf von Alt watercolour, Der alte Nordbahnhof, Wien, 1851, to the descendants of Lotte Heissfeld, a Jewish woman who was forced to sell the work in the 1930s by the Nazis.  But if it does, the museum will have to pay compensation - to the state.

Under laws that protect capital reserves, the Bavarian state ministry of finance requires Bavarian museum to reimburse the state the value of any works returned to their rightful owners.

"As a citizen I would like to see works given back as soon as possible, but the ministry of finance is exacerbating this," Andreas Strobl, a specialist in 19th-century art at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, said.

But Tina Dangel, a spokewoman for the ministry of finance, was adamant that article 81 of the Bavarian constitution must be upheld. "It is Bavarian property and we therefore have to insist on this," she said.  The article says that basic capital reserves can only be reduced in accordance with law and that "proceeds of disposals of any of these basic capital reserves shall be directed towards the further accumulation of such capital."

Von Alt's watercolour is estimated to be worth between €10,000 and €20,000. "At this price, it is possible for the museum to afford the repayment," said Strobl. "But what if we want to restitute a painting that is worth ten times as much? Our budget might well hinder us," he said.

The museum owns more than 600 works by Von Alt, many with an unclear provenance. Some of the works are paintings and are more valuable. "We want to make it easier and faster to restitute works," said Katja Funken, a spokeswoman for the state ministry of sciences, research and the arts. According to Funken, the Bavarian parliament would have to vote on whether to return a work of art without compensation.


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