A search of the handful of reliable databases that catalogue looted artworks—to see if a piece has been listed as looted—can be performed with relative speed. But a work being listed generally requires heirs or other entities to know that it is missing in the first place and to have reported it as such. More difficult provenance research into a painting that crossed war-torn Europe, for example, can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take more than a year.
For museums looking to research vast collections of potentially looted art, the time and expenditure can be daunting and fiscally impossible in some cases. Only a handful of major institutions or state collections have dedicated provenance researchers actively looking into the work they hold.
And even still, spending money on provenance research efforts doesn’t guarantee success. A specially commissioned task force researching works of suspicious provenance among the over 1,200 pieces found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt cost the taxpayers €1.8 million ($1.9 million) over two years. In that time, it uncovered the rightful owners of just five works of art.
Efforts to research the Oetker Collection appear relatively more successful, according to those I spoke with. And that it has worked amicably with heirs is of note to outside observers used to more contentious negotiations with institutions.
“Museums could learn a lot from this,” said Nicholas O’Donnell, a partner at Boston law firm Sullivan & Worcester who is currently litigating ongoing Holocaust restitution suits. O’Donnell is critical of how some institutions deploy what he calls “scorched earth” legal defenses—engaging in protracted arguments over statutory aspects of a case to prevent arguing on the basis of the historical facts, for example.
A 2015 report
by the World Jewish Restitution Organization highlighted several instances of museums resorting to these tactics when faced with Nazi restitution claims, including the Toledo Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art
in New York. The report also charged that “a number of U.S. museums, by seeking to block adjudication on the facts and the merits of claims, are failing to live up to the spirit of international declarations regarding restitution of Holocaust-era assets.”
Primary among those declarations are the 1998 Washington Conference Principles, which have become a touchstone for how to handle Nazi-looted art cases across the art world as a whole. The 44 signatory nations called on institutions to identify work Nazi-looted work not yet restituted and then work “expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution” in such cases.
In Dr. Oetker’s commitment to reach equitable settlements, one sees an adherence to the spirit of the principles many museums sidestep in court. “It’s a positive thing for a private corporation—which has no duty to the Washington Principles or to even think about them—to take that approach to a work of art in their possession,” said O'Donnell.
Pierre Valentin, a partner at Constantine Cannon LLP in London who is working with Dr. Oetker on its restitution efforts, wouldn’t reveal the specifics of company’s internal processes. He also eschewed direct comparisons to the Washington Conference Principles, citing that they don’t apply to private collections.
“We think that by following our guidelines we achieve an equitable outcome on a case by case basis,” he said.
Even outside of the Washington Conference Principles, institutions work under a different framework that that of Dr. Oetker. Museums facing restitution claims have consistently asserted a responsibility keep work in their collection and on view to the public. Private collections have no such commitment—and, in most cases, might prefer to avoid public links to the Nazi regime by retaining looted work.
The Oetker Collection is not rushing to finish its provenance research. The first round audit of just the collection’s paintings is currently slated wrap up at the end of 2017. And if new data becomes available or new information comes to light, that process could continue beyond that.
“It’s going to take as long as it takes,” said Valentin.