In an unprecedented step since Israel waived its right for direct restitution negotiations with Germany in the 1950s, two Israeli art experts will sit on the Schwabinger Kunstfund, the task force dealing with the sensational Munich art trove worth $1.4 billion found in spring 2012.
The Times of Israel has learned that Yehudit Shendar, deputy director and senior art curator at Yad Vashem’s museums division, and Shlomit Steinberg, Hans Dichand curator of European art at the Israel Museum, have been accepted as members of the prestigious task force of art restitution experts.
As senior art curator, Yad Vashem’s Shendar founded the Holocaust Art Research Center, which consists of the Archive of Holocaust Art, Library of Holocaust Art and Center for Documentation of Nazi-Looted Art.
The Israel Museum’s Steinberg has organized and represented the institution at conferences dealing with art restitution since her 2008 curation of two Israel Museum exhibits: “Looking for Owners: Custody, Research, and Restitution of Art Stolen from France during World War II,” and “Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust in the Israel Museum.”
The Israeli experts’ names were submitted by Project HEART (Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce), a joint project of the Jewish Agency under Natan Sharansky and the Ministry of Senior Citizens under Minister Uri Orbach, and were suggested in coordination with the Foreign Ministry.
German sources confirmed that although Israel was originally asked to submit one name, both experts were accepted.
The two Israelis join researchers recommended by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Sophie Lillie and Agnes Peresztegi, whose names were reported in a New York Times blog last week.
The panel is led by Dr. Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel and according to the task force spokesperson, other members include provenance experts from Germany, France, the United States, Austria and Hungary.
The task force members’ work will be web-based to enable participation from their respective countries “continuously and simultaneously.” The task force’s “first priority” is clarifying the provenance of the works. Its self-stated plan is to tackle the potentially Nazi-looted art first.
Since the case was made public in November 2013, some 18 months after the trove was discovered, Germany has been criticized for its lack of transparency in the case, in which 1,406 items were found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of one of Hitler’s most notorious art dealers.
The Munich trove was found in connection with a tax evasion investigation in February 2012 and is therefore part of criminal proceedings. The task force spokesperson cautions that details will be largely under wraps in light of the criminal case.
To date it is still unknown how many of the items are Nazi-looted or purchased through forced sales. According to the website Lost Art, which has published a database of the findings thus far, 970 of the works are being examined. Many additional items will likely be “degenerate art” confiscated by Nazis from artists or collections with the purpose of resale abroad — the elder Gurlitt’s specialty.
As the world scrutinizes these efforts, claimants and their lawyers are aghast at the lack of transparency until now.
“Many people who would like to see this case go away are dragging their feet,” lawyer Chris Marinello told The Times of Israel last month. Marinello represents the heirs of art dealer Paul Rosenberg who have registered a claim for a Matisse painting found in Gurlitt’s apartment. “My client is 94 years old and she doesn’t want to be told to have patience,” Marinello said.
As task force head Merkel emphasized in a statement to The Times of Israel, however, “In our work, we must put thoroughness, diligence and transparency before speed.”
International art restitution experts critical of the lack of transparency in the Gurlitt case — and the lack of procedures for claims in Germany in general — are hopeful that the international make-up of the panel will help give birth to a national claims process that will generate new clear working procedures for future cases.
“We hope and believe that this is a turning point on the issue of art in Germany as well as many other countries in eastern Europe. We hope a new standard will be created by the task force in giving the highest priority in returning looted art to survivors and their heirs so justice, although late, can still be done,” said Project HEART head Bobby Brown.