When World War II ended, it left a Europe in shambles—overflowing with refugees, starvation, and chaos, and overwhelmed with lingering questions about the legacy of Nazi rule in Germany and other occupied nations. Now, news that the heirs of Jewish art dealers whose works were claimed under Nazi-era laws have brought a $226 million lawsuit to reclaim medieval-era antiquities from German museums is a reminder that the war is far from over.
To understand why stolen art continues to be a contentious issue well into the 21st century, it makes sense to take a look into how and why Nazis “collected” (read: stole) Jewish-owned art. In “Not a Case of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’: The Collecting Practices of the Nazi Elite,” Jonathan Petropoulos notes that making off with art was a way of hijacking cultural artifacts to give legitimacy and authority to an emerging political movement.
After Hitler gained power in 1933, says Petropoulos, Nazis started to accumulate art at a staggering rate, amassing huge collections that mirrored the “drive to achieve German cultural hegemony through subjugation of other European countries and an appropriation and manipulation of their heritage.” Their methods ranged from forced sales to the seizure and theft of millions of dollars worth of privately and publicly-held art—art that was then scattered all over Europe.
The issue of what to do about Germany’s plundered cultural heritage has raged since the end of World War II, but it took on a sharper focus after the end of the Cold War opened up most of Europe. As part of a larger debate about the role of culture in society, the question of repatriating stolen art has become a hot button issue, both in the art world and for descendants of Jews whose family heritage was systematically stolen in the name of political domination.
But as Patricia Youngblood Reyhan notes, the issue is complex . She notes that in most cases, art has switched hands multiple times, crossing national borders and generating its own complex legacy. When “the journey of the art and the domicile of the claimants link the dispute to more than one state or nation,” writes Reyhan, “the multijurisdictional character of the case may substantially complicate the issue of ownership.” This leads to what she calls a “universally unattractive result”: a kind of legal chaos that makes it difficult to settle on an equitable outcome.