Confiscation Inventory Documents Fate of More than 21,000 Works of Art
Researchers at Freie Universität in Berlin on Tuesday unveiled a database reconstructing the fate of all the works of art classified by the Nazis as "degenerate" and then confiscated from museums. The documentation of the "Degenerate Art" Research Center at the Art History Institute includes more than 21,000 records on paintings, sculptures, and prints banned in 1937 by the National Socialists as "degenerate" and confiscated. Some 1,400 artists were affected. As of April 21, the results of their research will be accessible online, free of charge.
The "Degenerate Art" Research Center was established in late 2002. Since being set up the research center has been funded mainly by the Ferdinand Möller Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. Its research focuses on the methods of Nazi art policy, particularly the background, history, and impact of the seizure of modern art in German museums by the Nazis in 1937. This includes research on the anti-modern propaganda exhibitions after 1933 and the traveling exhibition "Degenerate Art" from 1937 to 1941. In this context, the research center looks into the fate of the artists involved, the strategies of the museum directors, and the role of art dealers in the disposal.
Whether the artist was Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Ludwig Godenschweg, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Oskar Schlemmer, or Milly Steeger - many famous paintings, sculptures, and works on paper are lost. They leave painful gaps in the collections in German museums. The cause is the art policies in the "Third Reich": in 1937 modern art was defamed in Germany in an unprecedented was as "degenerate." National socialists confiscated over 20,000 works from museums, almost completely removing the modern art movements from the eyes of the public. But where have the works gone? What fate awaited them?
The "Degenerate Art" Research Center, set up at Freie Universität Berlin upon the initiative of the Ferdinand Möller Foundation, investigates these questions. Under the direction of Prof. Dr. Klaus Krüger, a team of researchers around the art historian Andreas Hüneke attempts to reconstruct the confiscation action. Hüneke has been studying the Nazi "degenerate art" action for over 30 years. For this inventory all of the affected objects are entered in a multi-relational database (MuseumPlus). Each work of art is provided with the documentation necessary for its identification and is linked to images. The research focuses on the change in ownership of the confiscated works to their present location - a complex and in some cases politically explosive search for the lost works of art.
Unlike stolen or looted art classified as "Nazi-confiscated cultural property," restitution claims cannot be made for the works of art confiscated from museums in 1937 as "degenerate." The Nazi law of 1938 that made possible the confiscation without compensation of so-called "degenerate" art was not abolished. Public institutions such as museums cannot refer to racial or political persecution. Whoever is in possession of this art is still considered the rightful owner. In individual cases, however - such as when loans from private collections were included in the items seized from museums - there is a direct connection to restitution claims by formerly persecuted collectors and their descendants that continue to move the public. The "Degenerate Art" Research Center considers its database to be an important source of information for this type of claim.
Particularly in view of the increased emphasis placed by Minister of State for Culture, Bernd Neumann, on researching the origin of art in Germany, the database will be an essential tool for museum staff. Currently, the inventory contains 21,103 records that are linked to 12,221 image files. The database was set up as a work in progress. It will continue to be edited and supplemented. The previously collected data are not going to be put online all at once but successively. The initial publication of some 2,500 records will take place April 21, 2010. The research center aims to make further records of comparable size available at intervals of three to four months, after checking and updating them. The database is available to any users at no charge. The team at the research center hopes that by publishing the confiscation inventory, users of the database will be able to contribute information about the lost works and to this day unknown artists.