WHAT BEGAN as a normal customs check aboard a train in Central Europe has exploded into the most spectacular discovery in recent memory of art stolen during the Nazi era — one that now poses a test of the international community’s capacity to account for and, where appropriate, restore valuable property looted from Jews and others during the Holocaust.
In February 2012, Bavarian police investigating a Munich recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt, for traveling with a suspiciously large amount of cash, stumbled upon more than 1,400 pieces of art in his trash-strewn Munich apartment. The trove included works by Picasso, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and, most poignant, modern German artists, such as the expressionist Max Beckmann, whose works had been labeled “degenerate” by the Hitler regime.
Mr. Gurlitt’s art stash was apparently bequeathed to him by his father, the late Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who had been purged from museum jobs because of his partially Jewish origins, but who later helped the Nazis peddle confiscated “degenerate” art to raise cash for the regime.
As the elder Mr. Gurlitt’s complex biography suggests, the provenance of each piece in the collection could take years to establish — time that the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors and their heirs do not necessarily have. Bavaria’s law enforcement authorities are coming under fire for not revealing the existence of the paintings until Monday, after a German magazine, Focus, published a story about the case. The German federal government knew about the paintings, but not until a few months ago, according to Berlin.
Though it’s certainly hard to understand the failure of the authorities to anticipate the global public interest in their find, we’ll take their explanation for the lack of disclosure — that they were trying to protect the integrity of a criminal investigation — at face value. What’s most important is how German authorities, state and federal, handle the situation from here on. A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that her government is now “pushing with urgency, independent of the criminal inquiry, for information on confiscated artworks to be published for which there is already evidence that they were seized as part of Nazi persecution.” That is a step in the right direction, but why not publish photographs of the entire collection?
Germany, like the United States, is a signatory to the 1998 Washington Conference Principles, which commit countries to promote transparency and restitution with respect to Nazi-confiscated art. Appropriately, Ms. Merkel’s government has said it will act consistently with those principles. In our view, that would mean providing all the expertise, funding and political will Berlin can muster to ensure a thorough and fair resolution of what is already anything but a routine matter.