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Jewish dealer Max Stern in Berlin, circa 1925. Photo: Wikimedia.

Judge Rules in Favor of Nazi-Looted Art Database in Lawsuit over Disputed Work

The German Lost Art Foundation, which was launched in 2015 by federal and state governments in Germany in an attempt to advance efforts to identify and return artworks and artifacts confiscated by the Nazis, was taken to court by the current owner of a painting registered on its website. While the collector argued that the work’s inclusion in the database made it “unsellable,” the judge ruled in favor of the foundation.

“From the moment an artwork is listed in, a serious art dealer cannot trade it,” Rupert Keim, the president of Germany’s Federal Association of Art Auctioneers, told the Art Newspaper. “The seller is forced to find a solution with the claimant.” While this may seem beneficial for the heir of a former owner of a Nazi-looted work, descendants rarely prevail in court. Those in possession of disputed works are often protected by a rule called Ersitzung, which states that a good faith buyer may keep an object if no one makes any ownership claims within ten years of the acquisition.

The lawsuit against the database was filed by collector Wolfgang Peiffer from the German town of Baden-Baden. Peiffer had placed the winning bid on Andreas Achenbach’s Sicilian Landscape, 1861, at auction. However, in 1937, the piece was sold by the Jewish dealer Max Stern to the Nazis, who forced him to liquidate the entire inventory of his Dusseldorf gallery. The Max Stern Art Restitution Project added the work to the database in 2016, but Peiffer has since denied their claims to the piece and has maintained that Stern sold the work in a “perfectly normal gallery transaction.”

Peiffer’s lawyer attempted to make the Stern estate take the listing for the landscape down through legal action, but his complaint was ultimately dismissed last year, and now Peiffer has also lost his appeal. While artworks must pass a “plausibility assessment” to be registered on the database, the government relies on the claimants to conduct all of the research and provide evidence of their findings. The foundation has previously faced at least two other similar lawsuits, and it was allowed to continue listing artworks in both cases.