Website of the German Lost Art Foundation

Funding basis for research into the confiscation of cultural assets in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR

On January 22, 2015, the Foundation board tasked the executive board with drafting the initial framework of a funding concept for research into cultural assets confiscated or lost as a result of persecution and arbitrary action in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR. The Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs in Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia would also be involved.

As the result of a brainstorming session organized by the Foundation on October 28, 2015, in Berlin, a working group led by the Foundation was formed to prepare this framework and to compile ideas for the conference “The confiscation of cultural assets in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR” scheduled for November 21, 2016, in Berlin.

It had become apparent –more than 25 years after the demise of the GDR – that there was still a fundamental need for systematic investigation into the historical events, structures and methods, the participating authorities and institutions, the stakeholders and, in particular, the victims and people harmed by the state-operated confiscation of art and cultural assets between 1945 and 1989.

Case studies and comprehensive overviews are lacking in many areas – for instance on the issue of “Schlossbergung” (palace salvage) i.e. the emptying of manor houses and palaces as part of land reform measures in the Soviet Occupation Zone.

Research continues to be inadequate on the history of the GDR’s cultural, economic and social policy, the consequences of which led to social exclusion and disdain for the practice of privately collecting art and cultural assets, which in turn allowed a steady stream of arbitrarily and unlawfully confiscated objects to be exported to non-socialist foreign countries and West Germany for the purpose of securing hard currency. Studies that go beyond the existing publications are needed here, to examine the practices of criminalizing art dealers and collectors in the GDR and the selling of confiscated objects through the Bereich Kommerzielle Koordinierung (KoKo), particularly the state company Kunst- und Antiquitäten GmbH (KuA).

There is a fundamental need for research to reconstruct the organizational and operational structure for the seizure and evaluation of art and cultural assets in the GDR, from central level to local level to district level: What party or state leader had what decision-making authority, which state organ carried out the confiscation of assets, which state company was commissioned to sell items and redeem the proceeds, and what role was played by experts from the museum, library and university sector?

In this context, the first measures initially envisaged are:

  1. Basic research: As representative examples, research is to be conducted into “Aktion Licht” (Operation Light) carried out in 1962 by the GDR Ministry of State Security (the opening up of safes, securities accounts and safety deposit boxes, generally with no identifiable owners, in almost all banks in the GDR) and into the history of vault administration by the GDR Ministry of Finance, paying particular attention to their role in the allocation of expropriated, confiscated or supposedly abandoned art and cultural assets. A research project in collaboration with the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and in conjunction with an institute of contemporary history is being considered here. The structures and mechanisms are to be investigated as illustrative examples. When these are known, individual cases can be classified.

  2. Research into the collection history of public institutions with a focus on the review of acquisitions and allocations between 1945 and 1989: The implementation of pilot projects with selected museums and libraries to create a representative study on the nature and extent of acquisitions and allocations in the period stated. The pilot projects aim to shed light on whether – from today’s legal and ethical standpoint – acquisitions and allocations made between 1945 and 1989 can be considered to have been potentially or actually unjustly obtained.

  3. Archive: Continuation of cooperation between the Foundation/the “Soviet Occupation Zone/GDR Lost Cultural Assets” working group and the Federal Archives with regard to the professional exchange of information for the purpose of indexing the files of the Bereich Kommerzielle Koordinierung (KoKo), particularly the Kunst- und Antiquitäten GmbH (KuA). The requirements and experiences from the provenance research will be taken into account in the creation of reference guides and other funding aids relating to these holdings in the Federal Archives (degree of depth indexing).
    Working in conjunction with the authorities of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR (BStU), the holdings in the BStU archives will be indexed regarding the available information on art and cultural assets seized in the context of political persecution in the GDR. Here again, the aim is to create finding aids in order to provide structural and organizational prerequisites for provenance research at museums, libraries and other public institutions.

Project funding for the examination of holdings in public institutions would seem useful and promising only when these prerequisites are met and findings are available relating to the organizational and operational structure of the state-organized unlawful seizure of art and cultural assets in the GDR.

Initial Framework for Research into Cultural Assets Seized in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR (PDF, 49 KB)