Introduction

The field of Art Restitution generally concerns itself with artworks that were confiscated or seized from, forcibly sold by, or otherwise lost by the artworks’ previous owners. Generally, these owners had been subject to persecution or considerable duress. 

Given the various categories of potential Art Restitution claims, there appears to have been an array of (sometimes inconsistent) court decisions and differing opinions on how claims should be treated. This series of brief articles seeks to provide a non-exhaustive overview of categories of claims that have been considered.

Stasi-looted art

By Stasi looted art, we mean art that was seized by the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the state security service that operated in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) from 8 February 1950 until German reunification on 3 October 1990.  It was a highly effective, top-secret agency responsible for domestic political surveillance and foreign espionage.

Background

One of the primary goals of the GDR government in the 70s and 80s was to secure much needed Western currency in order to alleviate the state’s debt which was rapidly increasing and to support East Germany’s economy which was generally performing badly. The Stasi arranged the sale of artworks to help them achieve this goal.

A covert program was arranged between 1973 and 1989 whereby more than 220,000 valuable objects, including 10,000 paintings were identified and seized from private citizens. According to a 1993 report by a German investigative committee on looted art in East Germany, more than 200 victims were blackmailed or arrested on false charges so that the state could seize their collections. These confiscations were not carried out at random; they were highly sophisticated and well-organised strategic operations which were overseen by East Germany’s deputy minister of foreign trade, Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski.

The Stasi specifically targeted individual collectors or families that they knew had high value collections. They gained possession of the artworks under the pretext of unpaid taxes by declaring that the collectors were art dealers who owed up to 90 percent in taxes on the value of their supposed stock.  The Stasi would identify a collection, call at the collector’s property accompanied by tax officials and present the collector with a bill for unpaid taxes allegedly due.  Given that none of the individuals targeted could afford to pay the vast sums demanded, the Stasi were able to seize the artworks in lieu of payment. Once in possession, the Stasi are reported to have stored the works in warehouses (such as the depot in Mühlenbeck near Berlin) and sold them to dealers from the West via the state owned company Kunst und Antiquitäten GmbH set up by A. Schalck-Golodkowski.  Revenues generated by such sales were significant.

What do the precedents say?

Despite the fact that it is clear that a huge number of works were taken, unlike other categories of looted art, very few claims have been made in relation to Stasi looted works. Perhaps the most noteworthy Stasi case is the dispute between the heirs of the Helmuth Meissner and Henry Weldon before the Landgericht (Regional Court, Munich).

Helmuth Meissner was a renowned art collector from Dresden. In March 1982, the Stasi seized his entire collection, consisting of some 2,000 works of art. One of the works taken was a 1705 still life painting by Adriaen Coorte named Still Life with Chestnuts.  Mr Meissner’s son, Konrad, is in the process of attempting to reclaim the still life. Henry Weldon is believed to have purchased the painting in 1989 for $145,000. According to meticulous Stasi records, an attempt was made to sell this painting in Switzerland in 1984 but this was unsuccessful.  In 1988, the painting was shipped to Amsterdam and was sold that year at auction by Christie’s in the Netherlands for $76,974 to David Koetser, a Swiss gallery owner.  Mr Koetser then sold the painting the following year to Henry Weldon.

The claim/application that has been filed by the Weldon family states that the painting was purchased legally, in good faith and without any knowledge of it being a Stasi looted work. On that basis, the Weldons have asked the judge to acknowledge their clear title. The case has not yet been decided. Since the claim was issued, June Weldon, Henry Weldon’s widow, has died (October 2014) but her son, James Weldon, has indicated that he plans to pursue the claim. The outcome of this case may set the ball rolling for those considering bringing Stasi related claims.

Other cases have been decided in favour of heirs of the victim(s) of Stasi greed. One such case involved an old master painting called Hercules and Achelous from 1590 by Cornelis van Haarlem. The Potschien family owned the van Haarlem painting until 1985 when the Stasi seized it. The painting was confiscated and was eventually donated to the Berlin State Museums.  In 1986, it was declared to be government property and was moved to the Bode Museum. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the original owner’s son began legal proceedings to recover the painting. The Berlin Regional Court ruled in favour of the heir in 1997 concluding that the confiscation by the Stasi had been unlawful. The restitution claim was approved by the court in November 2007 and in 2008, the owner finally recovered the painting. It was then consigned for sale at Christie’s and sold for a staggering $8.1 million.

On other occasions, litigation has not been necessary.  One such example is the return in 2014 of twenty three artworks by the Angermuseum in Erfurt to Matthias Dietel, the son of art collector Heinz Dietel, who was taken into custody in 1972 and whose collection was sold by Kunst und Antiquitäten GmbH. Another reported example is the return of several items that were seized from the Meissner collection including a cabinet which formed part of a large collection of rare Meissen porcelain and a Lobmeyr enamelled liquor set and case designed by Heinrich Bergmann and produced by the Schuerer workshop in Vienna in 1872 that was in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin.

What can claimants do?

The most immediate challenge for potential claimants is to discover where lost works are currently located. Tracing works that were seized by the Stasi is a challenging task unless the works in question come up for sale or are displayed in public museums. The search required is unquestionably easier for other categories of looted art. Websites such as lostart.de assist potential claimants in locating Nazi-looted art. However, for artworks taken in Stasi raids there is no such resource. Therefore, relying on provenance researchers is essential.

What are the chances of making a successful claim?

Stasi cases are in their infancy. Considerable difficulties surround these cases.  Not only are there problems in identifying and tracking down the artworks, but also identifying the heirs (if indeed there are any).  Many of the collections taken by the Stasi were disassembled when they were sold to the West by Kunst und Antiquitäten GmbH, and have since been scattered across multiple jurisdictions.  Many artworks are in private collections and will be unlikely to surface unless they are sold by auction or put on public display.

Nevertheless, it appears that those Stasi cases which have been litigated to date have been positively determined in favour of the heirs of the families that had their collections taken, although there are too few claims so far to draw any firm conclusions about this. Claims such as the one for Adriaen Coorte’s Still Life with Chestnuts are creating momentum in this area and it is likely that in cases where there are living heirs, they will turn to the courts to reclaim Stasi seized works where restitution cannot be achieved through other means.

By Rose Guest and Till Vere-Hodge

Published 7 December 2016