BERLIN (AFP) - Germany must introduce a law specifically aimed at facilitating the return of Nazi-looted art, the head of the World Jewish Congress said Thursday after meeting with top German officials.
WJC President Ronald S. Lauder said there were still thousands of priceless artworks in the hands of individuals and museums that were stolen from Jews under the Third Reich and said the country was not legally equipped to handle such cases.
"One of the main reasons that these problems still exist is that there is no law in Germany that addresses the restitution of looted art," he said in remarks prepared for delivery later Thursday at a museum documenting the Nazi terror.
He noted that Germany had already negotiated compensation on "the difficult issues of slave labour, stolen bank deposits and insurance policies".
"I encourage Germany to deal with Nazi-looted art in the same comprehensive manner," he said, calling the works "the last prisoners of World War II".
Mr Lauder said he pressed this point in talks with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Justice Minister Heiko Maas. He said the onus should be on museums, not the victims of Nazi plundering, to search their collections for stolen works and track down their rightful owners.
"Austria has done this. France and Holland have made steps in this direction and the UK has a commission that is available to examine claims and advise the government on restitution," he said. "But this is Germany, where the crime began. More is required."
Mr Lauder reiterated a call he made in an interview with AFP in November for Germany to lift a 30-year statute of limitations on reclaiming stolen property, and for the formation of a commission that would help process claims and examine public collections for stolen works.
He made the proposals after the revelation late last year that the son of a prominent Nazi-era art dealer had hoarded more than 1,000 valuable works in his Munich flat, many of which may have been extorted or stolen from Jewish collectors.
A lawyer for the man, 81-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, told German media this week he was in talks with individual families about their claims with the aim of reaching "fair and equitable solutions". Mr Lauder, however, warned that the Gurlitt case was likely to spawn "hundreds of separate lawsuits".
He said a claims commission would "rationalise the process and hopefully keep these claims out of the courts". And he criticised the fact that a board of advisors known as the Limbach Commission set up by Germany to help resolve ownership disputes could only offer non-binding recommendations.
On Wednesday, the government's top official for cultural issues, Monika Gruetters, told parliament that Germany plans to double public funding for restitution efforts following widespread criticism of its handling of the issue, and streamline the claims process.
She added that Germany was prepared to include Jewish representatives on the Limbach Commission. The WJC, which Lauder has chaired since 2007, represents 100 Jewish communities outside Israel.
The billionaire philanthropist and art collector, son of the cosmetics mogul Estee Lauder, set up a foundation in 1987 with the goal of rebuilding Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe devastated in World War II.