‘Degenerate Art’ Database Shows 21,000 Works Seized by Nazis

Berlin’s Free University will today go live with an Internet database documenting the fate of more than 21,000 artworks condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis and seized from German museums in 1937.

The Web site, the result of eight years of research by art historians at the university, includes works by Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It gives details of the museums they were seized from and their current location, in cases where it is known and where the work wasn’t destroyed.

“We are hoping that this will yield more information about the fate of some of the art, perhaps from private collections and archives,” Meike Hoffmann, one of the scholars involved in the project, told a news conference in Berlin yesterday. “We also want to draw attention to and document the wonderful collections of modern art the German museums had in the 1930s.”

As well as looting hundreds of thousands of artworks from private Jewish collectors, the Nazis seized thousands of modern works from German museums. Their aim was to rid the museums of art they saw as contrary to Aryan ideals, and instead promote regime-approved artists such as the sculptor Arno Breker.

In 1937, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels staged the exhibition “Degenerate Art,” which first opened in Munich, where it attracted more than 2 million people before moving on to other German and Austrian cities. Paintings were hung crowded together, some with no frames, alongside racist slogans denigrating the artists for “insulting German womanhood” and revealing “sick minds.”

Restitution Claims

The museums who owned the art before World War II have no legal recourse to claim the works because a Nazi law allowing their seizure without compensation has never been repealed. Still, some works in the database were owned by private collectors who had loaned them to museums and whose heirs are still trying to get them restituted.

One such example is Paul Klee’s “Sumpflegende” (Swamp Legend), which was seized from Hanover’s Provinzialmuseum. The mayor of Munich, which acquired the painting in 1982, has until now refused to return it to the heirs of the prewar owner, Sophie Lissitzky-Kueppers.

Andreas Hueneke, the founder of the Free University project, began researching the fate of “degenerate” artworks almost 40 years ago from the files of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry. Yet only the first part of the inventory of seized works was available, covering museums from Aachen to Greifswald. The second part -- Hagen to Zwickau -- resurfaced only in the late 1990s in London, where a complete inventory had been bequeathed to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Free University plans to open an English version of the Web site in the coming weeks. The site’s address is: http://www.geschkult.fu-berlin.de/e/db_entart_kunst/

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

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