Gurlitt’s Bequest to Kunstmuseum Bern Upheld; Ongoing Task of Handling Restitution Claims Remains
04/07/2015This blog, along with the rest of the art world, has followed the twists and turns in the strange story of the Gurlitt Collection, a staggering trove of well over 1,000 artworks amassed by German art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt during the Nazi era. Our earlier posts review the matter in more detail, but in short, Gurlitt was one of only a few dealers authorized by Nazi leaders to trade in what the Nazis called “degenerate” works of art confiscated or looted by the Nazis; he likely handled works that were looted from persecuted individuals or purchased via duress sales, as well as “degenerate” works removed from German museums to be sold abroad. After the fall of Nazi Germany, the Gurlitt family claimed that their artworks had been destroyed during the war—but in 2013, German authorities announced that hundreds of artworks—including pieces by Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall, Monet, Matisse, and many others—had been discovered hidden in a small Munich apartment belonging to Hildebrand’s reclusive son, Cornelius. More works later surfaced in Cornelius’s other residences in Austria.
The months following the discovery were marked by debate and confusion as Gurlitt and German authorities tried to agree as to how the works should be handled, and a task force began the mammoth undertaking of researching the works’ provenance. In May 2014, however, Cornelius died at age 81, and named as his sole heir the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland, an institution with which he had no prior dealings. The museum took several months to decide whether to accept the bequest, a weighty question that meant shouldering not only a massive number of works, but the legal and ethical complexities of handling claims to those works. Last November, the Kunstmuseum Bern accepted the bequest and announced a process by which it would undertake provenance research and restitution.
In our last update, we reported that, even as the Kunstmuseum was beginning this work, a new wrinkle emerged. Cornelius Gurlitt had no children or spouse, but a cousin, Uta Werner, had come forward to challenge the validity of his will, calling into question his mental state during the last years of his life and arguing that he was incapacitated at the time he signed the will.
Last week, a Munich court rejected Werner’s challenge, ruling that Gurlitt’s bequest to the Kunstmuseum was valid. Werner has a month to decide whether to appeal the decision, but for now, the focus returns to the museum, its task force, and the efforts to restitute some of the works to the families of victims of Nazi looting. The museum had at times claimed that the Werner case was delaying restitution of three specific works that had already been identified as looted by Nazis. The claimants to those works, however, disputed that that was the reason for the delay; the claimants and the museum have also sparred over the families’ documentation of their claims. One family, the heirs of French art dealer Paul Rosenberg, even reached an agreement with Werner’s family, in which the Werners renounced any interest in Rosenberg’s Matisse; this, they said, undermined the museum’s claim that the Werner case was the obstacle to the work’s return. Another heir, David Toren, whose family has made claims to a looted Max Liebermann painting, has sued in the United States, and has been vocal in criticizing the delay in obtaining the work.
Against this backdrop, some in the art world are becoming more critical of the way the Gurlitt Collection has been handled by the Kunstmuseum and German and Bavarian authorities. Some have asserted that despite some lip service to the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which provides non-binding guidance to governments dealing with these complex issues, the Gurlitt matter has been handled with insufficient transparency and dedication to restitution. Still others continue to watch the situation with measured hope that, once the Werner challenge to Gurlitt’s will is resolved, the restitution efforts will pick up steam. In the meantime, the Gurlitt saga is unfolding at a time when public interest in stories about Nazi-looted art seems to be on the rise, garnering press coverage and inspiring popular films such as last year’s The Monuments Men and this year’s Woman in Gold. We will continue to monitor the case, whose repercussions will likely be felt for years to come.
Art Law Blog