A German auction house is helping return Nazi-looted art to their rightful owners

German-Jewish art dealer Siegfried Laemmle, left, was forced to dissolve his business under the Nazi Party. Now, his descendants are getting a small piece of it back.

(CNN)Nina McGehee always knew that her family fled Europe before World War II broke out. But she only recently learned about what they left behind.

McGehee's great-grandfather, Siegfried Laemmle, was a German art and antiquities dealer with a successful business in Munich. He was also Jewish, and like all Jewish art dealers in the Third Reich, he was forced to liquidate his business as part of the "Aryanization" of businesses.
Before they had to give up their businesses, Jewish merchants in the Nazi era had to mark their stores with a Star of David and word Juden, which means "Jews."
Some Laemmle objects ended up in private collections, others in museums. Most were sold through a Munich auction house under the guise of legitimate sales.
    Now, the current head of the auction house is helping return those objects to their rightful owners, including McGehee's family.
    A common estimate for the number of works of art looted in the Nazi era is 600,000 with at least 100,000 still missing.
    Often, in the process of restitution, the burden is on families to prove an object was sold because of Nazi persecution. That's starting to change as countries and institutions strengthen their commitments to researching the provenance of objects in their possession and making that information publicly available.
    A central database contains an estimated 25,000 missing, looted or identified objects -- paintings, drawings, antiquities -- from more than 15 countries.
    But Neumeister Auctions in Munich appears to be one of few private art dealers in the world taking the work upon themselves.
    "I'm not responsible for what happened in National Socialism (Nazism), but I'm responsible for what I'm doing now -- or especially what I'm not doing," said managing director Katrin Stoll, who took over the business in 2008.
    "As a German business, we have a social responsibility to do this."
    Stoll and McGehee shared their story this week at the University of Denver's Center for Art Collection Ethics, where McGehee recently audited a class on provenance research. Toward the end of the semester, McGehee revealed to the professor her connection to the subject.
    Nazi law required Jewish merchants to post signs saying their businesses were Jewish-owned.
    "It's a wonderful success story that shows the benefits of the kind of research that we're trying to promote," said associate professor Elizabeth Campbell.
    "It's an excellent example of how provenance research can help families achieve belated justice as well as strengthen human connections within one family and across continents."
    McGehee says the restitution process opened her eyes to a chapter in her family's history that her parents seldom spoke of, eager as they were to leave it in the past.
    "I didn't know anything about the family business or that my great grandfather was considered one of the top-of-the-line dealers," McGehee said in a phone interview. "It just wasn't something my parents ever discussed."

    What happened to the Laemmle collection?

    McGehee's journey to the truth began with a German documentary that includes her family's story.
    "Under the Hammer of the Nazis" recounts Stoll's efforts to right the wrongs of a key figure in the trafficking of Nazi-plundered goods in Bavaria. The documentary was screened at the University of Denver event that included McGehee, Stoll and the researcher who reviewed Neumeister's files, Meike Hopp.
    University of Denver associate professor Elizabeth Campbell, left, leads a screening of "Under the Hammer of the Nazis" with Katrin Stoll, Nina McGehee and Meike Hopp.
    Art dealer Adolf Weinmueller was a Nazi party member who directed the pilfering and sale of the Laemmle collection, among others in Bavaria, for the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, which oversaw the liquidation of the Jewish art trade.
    Adolf Hitler intended for the artifacts to end up in the Führermuseum, an unrealized art museum in a planned cultural complex for his hometown. Hitler had first pick of the looted objects, according to the film, but most of them went into private ownership through auction.
    Siegfried Laemmle was 73 when the order came to liquidate his collection. A respected dealer and collector, he had been running his business in Munich since 1894, specializing in late medieval and early Renaissance sculptures.
    Laemmle and his son Walter tried to convince authorities of their professional qualifications and commitment to German culture. But they quickly realized they had no choice but to dissolve the business.