This week the German government announced it had recovered a hoard of 1,500 artworks that had been missing since 1939. The discovery, which includes works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Albrecht Durer, marks an astonishing development for many families and institutions still seeking to recover lost and looted art from the Nazi era. Kojo explores the ramifications the discovery has in Europe, as well as the political and personal obstacles that remain for those hoping to recover lost art.


  • David Lewis Founder and Co-Chair, Commission for Looted Art in Europe
  • Lynn Nicholas Author, "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War"

Nazi-Looted Art Found In Germany


  • 12:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants coming to D.C. and Maryland with some restrictions. But, first, it was a jaw-dropping weekend revelation from the heart of Bavaria. 1,500 artworks valued up to $1.4 billion were recovered from a dirty Munich apartment, much of the art by masters such as Matisse, Chagall and Picasso were feared lost after Nazi's acquired them by force, then deemed them degenerate in the society they were building.

  • 12:07:34

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe discovery has the art world salivating, but it's also a fresh reminder that World War II-era injustices are still being remedied. So now that this trove has come to light, what's next? Will the paintings be returned to their rightful owners? And how will that be determined under Europe's complicated restitution process. Joining me in studio to talk about this is Lynn Nicholas, author of "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War." Lynn Nicholas, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:07

    MS. LYNN NICHOLASThank you for having me.

  • 12:08:09

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone from London is David Lewis, Founder and Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. David Lewis, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:19

    MR. DAVID LEWISMy pleasure.

  • 12:08:19

    NNAMDIWe invite listeners to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Should the art trove found in Germany be traced to its original owners? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. You can send email to or send us a tweet at kojoshow. Lynn Nicholas, the announcement over the weekend that 1,500 works had been found in the home of a German businessman named Cornelius Gurlitt was astounding, especially when you think of paintings by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse just sitting in stacks in a Munich apartment. Could you put this discovery into some context for us. How significant is this in the decades long effort to recover lost and looted art from the Nazi era?

  • 12:09:06

    NICHOLASWell, millions and millions of works of art were recovered after the war but, of course, not all of them. And the scale in which the Nazis looted and actually sold off things from their own museums under their degenerate art program was enormous. So at this -- things do turn up in these stashes from time to time. We've had one in Munich, I mean, in Switzerland lately: A man called Bruno Loza, (sp?) who was one of Goering's henchmen. But something with this many works of art at one time is really very highly unusual.

  • 12:09:42

    NICHOLASAnd the man who collected them or gathered them or bought them was one of the principal dealers that were used by the Nazis during the War, both in Germany and in France and other countries.

  • 12:09:59

    NNAMDIDavid Lewis, this stash of art was found about a year and a half ago and we're only now learning about it. You wrote a piece in the "Guardian" this week offering one explanation for the lag time. Can you share that with us?

  • 12:10:13

    LEWISWell, firstly, let's be clear. The release of this information was not voluntary. It was leaked to a German magazine. The very fact we're talking about it was not the decision of the Bavarian authorities. They were keeping this information very, very secret for their own good reasons. But it was publicized in Germany, and of course now it's gone round the world. I suspect that the size, as Lynn Nicholas said, the size of this hoard is so substantial that it has shocked even the Bavarian authorities who traditionally have been quite difficult in dealing with small numbers of potential looted items, where eventually they sort of accept possession if it's proven.

  • 12:11:11

    LEWISBut a hoard of 1,400 or 1,500 items is so large, it's so difficult to accept, that I think they are or they were trying to keep it as private as possible for as long as possible. And now, of course, they are forced to begin to consider the implications. And they're not comfortable.

  • 12:11:34

    NNAMDIThe latest figures we're getting is 1,406 items. What would be your take on why the Germans and the Bavarians kept this quiet?

  • 12:11:43

    NICHOLASWell, this is a, you know, it started as a tax matter. Mr. Gurlitt, the businessman, who was the son of the dealer, was caught laundering money from Switzerland. So that's how the investigation started. And it turned out that he had -- it was sort of non-existent person, and no one had ever paid any estate taxes on all these things that he has in his apartment, many of which he may legally -- or his father and mother may have legally owned. So I believe the German tax authorities were, you know, as any tax authorities do, these things are very private, so they were trying to straighten that out.

  • 12:12:19

    NICHOLASAnd also, I think, you know, Germany has an enormous number of people doing research on all these issues. And they wanted to, you know, prepare -- find out who these things really belonged to and where they came from before they announced their presence because, as has happened now, you know, there's a media frenzy and it's very hard for them to, you know, sort of deal with that. Of course, I think it was naïve that they thought that they could keep it secret for very long. And publishing the list will, of course, help people who might have a claim to identify things.

  • 12:13:03

    NICHOLASBut I think we should not forget that many of these things may legally belong to the Gurlitt family. So what will happen to them, it depends on, you know, the identification.

  • 12:13:06

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. What kind of impact do you think the Munich discovery will have on the art world or on restitution efforts. 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, and join the conversation there. Today we are hearing that the State Department here is getting involved in this case. It's weighing a formal push to get Germany to cooperate more with other governments and with private groups in returning these Nazi-confiscated artworks, the ones discovered in the Munich apartment. How significant is U.S. government involvement in a case like this, Lynn Nicholas?

  • 12:13:45

    NICHOLASWell, there has been cooperation for years between the two governments. So I think what -- I don't know, I haven't heard what their exact statement was, but I think they probably would, you know, they think that the publication of the list would be an excellent idea, so that, you know, people over here and everywhere can see just what's on the list. And while a few things have been identified as having been looted, we just don't know what the rest are. And so it would clarify everything to have the list published so the people can look at it.

  • 12:14:25

    NNAMDIDavid Lewis, Bloomerg, today, has published an article identifying a family who has already made a claim on one painting. But Germany has a 30-year statute of limitations for filing claims in cases where the artwork has found to have been held by a private individual. Should that be changed? How realistic is it that that law could be changed?

  • 12:14:45

    LEWISOther countries have changed the law of the statute of limitations. I mean, the entire question of looted art or looted objects generally needs special attention. And starting in '98 with the Washington Conference on Looted Art, which countries signed up to, all western countries, including Germany of course, laid down a standard of procedure for items in public collections. Various countries have taken steps to limit the use of statute of limitations where objects are to be accepted as stolen or looted or acquired through false sales, various ways that have happened.

  • 12:15:37


  • 12:15:37

    LEWISAnd I believe that the German government should consider this as well because this is a special situation. This is -- what matters now, in private hands, clearly it's an issue. But to hide behind the statute of limitations for items, which probably many of them will end up substantially proven as having been looted, would be quite unacceptable.

  • 12:15:59

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please.

  • 12:16:00

    LEWISAnd well, I think it's fair to say that as Lynn Nicholas absolutely correctly says, that there will be all different categories of items within this enormous hoard. Some will have come from museums, when the Nazis called it degenerate art. They came from the museums at the time and probably, therefore, quite rightly, should stay back in the public sector in Germany. Then there will be items which are, indeed, privately owned by the Gurlitt's family in the list that one sees from 1945. There are paintings by a family member who was an artist called Louis Gurlitt.

  • 12:16:35

    LEWISObviously, these were private property. But then you get the categories of items which were seized or confiscated or just looted. And order to see what would be fair, equitable and where justice can be seen to be done, they have to publish the lists, because otherwise everybody's in the dark and there's no ability to come to a sensible, steady, intelligent conclusion to what, obviously, is a difficult process. But a hoard of this kind, given the sensitivities around Nazi loot, must be dealt with transparently. That's the key.

  • 12:17:18

    NNAMDILynn Nicholas, the man who held these works was the son of a very famous Nazi-era art dealer named Hildebrand Gurlitt. Gurlitt had a very interesting history. Can you tell us about him and how his son may have ended up with these paintings?

  • 12:17:31

    NICHOLASYes, well Hildebrand Gurlitt was in a very difficult position, as were many of the people who ended up being dealers, caught up in the Nazi acquisition agencies. And it wasn't all looting. There was a huge amount of buying done by the Nazi leaders. He was a person who loved modern art, who promoted modern art. And he did know some of the artists, like Beckman and other ones. And he was fired from his job at a museum in Hamburg for that reason, but also probably because he was a quarter Jewish.

  • 12:18:11

    NICHOLASAnd one of the ways that people like that made their way, you know, survived in -- both in Germany and in Nazi-occupied Europe -- was to keep supplying art to the Nazi leaders. And there are many examples of dealers who were in this situation. He was first involved with the de-accessioning of degenerate art from the Nazi state museums. And these things have never been -- these were marketed abroad. They couldn't be sold for German currency. They had to be paid for in Swiss francs or dollars, and that was to generate foreign currency for the German government.

  • 12:18:54

    NICHOLASAnd these things went all over the world to museums and private collectors. And they have never been considered loot by the German museums after the war did not make claims for them. And they are recognized as legal sales. And he may have, himself, been able to buy some of these. Or he may have just taken a bunch of them. And that would have been perhaps because there was a, you know, the German government eventually burned piles of them to get rid of them -- the more fanatic people. And there was a sort of move, even within the propaganda ministry of Goebbels to save these things and get them out to safety.

  • 12:19:34

    NICHOLASLater on, he worked for Hitler's organization, and was sent abroad to buy things on the French market. And from all the studies that the allies did after the war, which were quite voluminous, it does seem that most of the things that he bought there were from dealers in Paris. Now whether he knew their origins or not is -- well, we don't know that yet. And these things went to the well-known German museums. And most of that was given back after the war.

  • 12:20:04

    NICHOLASBut, of course, he had the opportunity to buy things and pick things up and clearly he did buy a certain amount of looted art and that would be identified, I would think, without too much difficulty in the next few months and weeks. But it takes a long time to figure out where the origin of each and every painting.

  • 12:20:28

    NNAMDILynn Nicholas is author of "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War." She joins us in studio. David Lewis joins us by phone from London. He is founder and co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. David Lewis, now that these works have been found, how does your organization help those who may be interested in possible claims on the art?

  • 12:20:51

    LEWISWe help as soon as we can identify them by photographs and other information. And this is -- as I said before, is absolutely fundamental that the German authorities must issue without delay photographs, front and back, so people can start identifying. We hold inventories. We have access to catalogues. We are in touch with many families. The records that go back decades and decades

  • 12:21:21

    LEWISIt's a slow but steady process, but you have to have the information unless the German authorities accede to the pressure, which is I think rightly being brought by other governments and organizations and individuals who may have been -- their families have been affected. Until they do that, we can't start the process. And clearly they must accept that the apparent secrecy was quite inappropriate.

  • 12:21:51

    LEWISThere are legal issues. As I said earlier, these works clearly will be defined into different categories, and that's a process which has to be gone through, as to what was looted, what was bought or taken from museums. And the question of how you set about this is firstly you have information. And if you have the information we, over all these years, have identified thousands of items. It's painstaking work, but it can be done.

  • 12:22:27

    LEWISAnd this process will be no different except it'll be rather large, but no different in principle from all the other work that we do once the information is available.

  • 12:22:39

    NNAMDILynn Nicholas, will authorities try to track down works that Cornelius Gurlitt sold to others in the past, oh, 60 years or so?

  • 12:22:47

    NICHOLASWell, I would think so. And his name doesn't -- Cornelius Gurlitt doesn't pop up in many things that most people had looked at. But it is very interesting -- one of the things that's very interesting is that he sold, after the money laundering incident apparently but before the seizure, he did manage to sell something in Germany at a well-known auction house. And that had allegedly belonged to the Flekteim (sp?) family. And that's a very complicated case that's going on in Germany.

  • 12:23:21

    NICHOLASBut how that one managed to get out and be sold, and actually I gather that some settlement was reached between the heirs of the Flekteim, who was a dealer too, and Mr. Gurlitt. So obviously there's been something going on for quite a little while here. So that is really -- might be quite a good story.

  • 12:23:44

    NNAMDIDavid Lewis, how sticky can the restitution process get depending on where art or an artifact is discovered?

  • 12:23:54

    LEWISIt can be very sticky. Difference countries deal with this in different ways. Some -- I think I said that in the article you very kindly referred to -- you know, some countries have paid full attention to the Washington protocols. Others say they do, but in practice don't. And others ignore it. It really is a question of which country you're dealing in. Some countries have set up panels of experts to give independent appraisal of these claims. Britain for example, Holland for example.

  • 12:24:34

    LEWISBut in certain cases -- let me give you a very quick example -- the panel in Holland is permitted to deny restitution even if they accept that it was looted, even if they accept the families -- descendants of the family's claim. they're permitted to deny restitution if, you know, in judgment they believe that the item is more important to the museum that's got it rather than it would be to the family to whom it would be restituted. Rather like deciding, you know, if you break the windows of the jewelry shop, on whose hand the ring looks prettiest.

  • 12:25:12

    LEWISNow, to just give you a brief example of some of the difficulties other countries you just find silence or sorry we haven't got the staff to look into it or -- and so forth. So it's very much hit and miss. And this would take more time than we have on your program, but I assure you it's a very difficult process. Some countries have been extremely helpful in every respect, even changed their law to accommodate these issues, regarding statute of limitations, regarding the ability of public bodies to give things back and so forth. But it is hit and miss,

  • 12:25:51

    NNAMDIThe Washington protocols that David Lewis referred to result from a December, 1998 meeting in which representatives of 44 countries gathered here in Washington and hammered out those principles or protocols that would guide the return of artwork. Both David Lewis and Lynn Nicholas were on hand. Lynn, Russia is also a major stumbling block in the effort to return lost art. Why has Russia been so difficult to deal with?

  • 12:26:17

    NICHOLASWell, I think the situation in Russia is very special. I mean, they lost more people in World War II than almost anyone, more than 20 million people. And the Nazis really, you know, trashed the whole country and stole huge numbers of things from them. And that -- you know, the feeling about Germany has been very -- so strong that most of the items that the Russians took were taken as they invaded Germany. And they were taken back and are now in various museums there. And they have passed a law nationalizing these things. And I think politically it would be very difficult to get that changed.

  • 12:27:02

    NICHOLASOn the other hand, there have been some small exchanges of archives and things like that. And there are different groups in Russia that would -- who think that the items should be restituted. But at the moment the government won't play at all. But we do at least know now that the, you know, Soviet Union has fallen a while back but aware a lot of the things are, which was unknown before.

  • 12:27:26

    NNAMDIDavid Lewis, should lost artworks always go back to their original owners or their descendants, no matter what? I ask because many people point to the famous case in 2006 when a painting by Gustav Klimt was removed from an Austrian museum and as restitution to its original owner. Then the owner promptly sold it for millions to Ron Lauder. It now hangs in a New York City museum.

  • 12:27:50

    LEWISWell, the accident value is an accident. You know, when an object is very valuable or very minor value is a matter of -- in my opinion, of irrelevance. Most objects that we deal with are of very, very little value indeed. By definition those items that happen to have become fashionable over the past 60 or 70 years that were not fashionable 100 years ago, they happen to become very valuable. But this is a very, very small minority. That particular item got greater publicity because it became particularly valuable.

  • 12:28:34

    LEWISThere are many other things which are worth next to nothing which were valuable in those days. But the art market goes up and down. And I think it's actually rather unfair to try and analyze these issues on the financial value. I mean, you know, either one accepts that things were stolen and therefore they are due back to the family or the descendants of the family or one doesn't. The laws of inheritance are pretty straightforward in most western countries.

  • 12:29:00

    LEWISAnd the value, I don't think, is of relevance although naturally it makes headlines. But by definition, that 99 percent of the items that are restituted are worth minor amounts of money. And the money is not the issue. The issue is connecting with broken families, connecting with lost homes, connecting with lost people. And the item you mention has been well-publicized for obvious reasons but that is not a precedent. And I don't think the value is really of relevance, albeit it inevitably hits a headline when it happens to be a lot of money. But that's just chance.

  • 12:29:40

    NICHOLASLynn Nicholas, final question. Do we have any official numbers on how many artworks were confiscated during the Nazi era, how many are still missing? I guess what I'm really asking is, is it likely that there are other Cornelius Gurlitts still out there?

  • 12:29:54

    NICHOLASWell, that's the question we all hate is the numbers because, you know, it depends on whether -- what you're talking about, if they're books and coins and sculptures and prints. And so I really think it's -- nobody really knows but huge numbers were taken and lost in various other ways. And pretty huge numbers have been returned. I mean, I always think about 80 percent of what was displaced -- and that's in many different ways -- is more or less back where it should be or its location is known. It may not be in quite the right hands but...

  • 12:30:33

    NICHOLASAnd, yes, I think there will be more stashes like this because the generation that was in the war and now their heirs who may have had things, you know, put away in closets, they are beginning to die. And things will inevitably come up at estates and be discovered in this way. So there will be, I think, a continuing stream. Not huge but there will be things like this.

  • 12:30:56

    NNAMDINicholas is author of "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War." Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:31:04

    NICHOLASThank you very much.

  • 12:31:05

    NNAMDIDavid Lewis is founder and co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. David Lewis, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:31:11

    LEWISThank you very much for asking me.

  • 12:31:12

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants that are coming to both the District of Columbia and Maryland but with some restrictions. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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