Nazi Stolen Art Still Not Returned

Art law of stolen Nazi Degenerate art

In November, I wrote an article about a treasure trove of 1408 artistic works stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Unfortunately, while at the time, it seemed that much of this art would returned to their owners, not much has happened, although some new developments may see that change.

The art was discovered in the apartment of 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of four art dealers allowed to sell artistic works under the Nazi regime. Several hundred works are confirmed as being legitimately owned by Gurlitt but over 590 still have questionable provenance. (They are being professionally photographed, scanned and posted to the German government site

Cornelius Gurlitt has said that he will not give back any of the 1408 works discovered in his apartment without a fight.

Provenance is a major hurdle to restitution in this case, and with all stolen Nazi art.  Until proven otherwise, the works remain the property of Gurlitt and proving that the work was owned by another person in the 1940’s is challenging.  First, many of the critical documents were destroyed during the War. For the several hundred thousand holocaust survivors and other refugees that were unable to return to their homes or even their home countries at the end of the War, there was no way to carry records of their art ownership with them as they made their way to new lives in Palestine or the United States. A grandmother remembering a Picasso on their wall or  a daughter remembering that her mother had told her they owned a Chagall does not rise to the level of proof necessary to have art returned.

Laws in general tend to favor current ownership and despite international agreement on restitution of stolen Nazi art, local laws may hamper those efforts. In Germany, where the Gurlitt works were discovered, the statute of limitations for claiming a stolen work is only 30 years.  Under current law, Gurlitt may not be required to return many of the works despite a showing of ownership, which has put Germany in an uncomfortable position.

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, at least for the Gurlitt pieces.  Pressure from several countries including the United States and Israel has pushed the German government into creating an international task force, to look into resolving the stumbling blocks to restitution in the Gurlitt case and others. The task force will consist of 10 experts in art restitution, provenance research as well as the history of Germany’s Nazi era and the value of art.

Also, the Gurlitt case has prompted the German state of Bavaria to introduce a new bill, which will come to the floor for debate in early February, which will lift the Statute of Limitations in cases where ”the current holder of the work acted in bad faith, knowing exactly the origin of the item or having clear evidence for it at the time he acquired it,” according to the Bavaria Minister of Justice.

Gurlitt may fit into that category so should the law pass; the odds that these works will be returned to their original owners will improve dramatically. We’ll let you know what happens.

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For an in depth discussion on Gurlitt and his Nazi Stolen artwork, see this 6-minute video from

About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

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