Gurlitt Affair Art Trove Report Disappoints

The investigation into the provenance of the sensational art trove found in Munich has yielded meager results. Researchers plan to continue returning works that may have been stolen by the Nazis.
Art provenance research coordinator Andrea Baresel-Brand at work.

Despite a mammoth effort, results have been paltry in the search for the rightful owners of the sensational trove of Nazi-era art discovered in Munich in 2012.

That's according to a government task force, which released its long-awaited final report last week.

Of about 500 artworks suspected of being illegally confiscated by the Nazis, the task force determined the provenance of just 11. Of them, five were looted art, the report said.

They were among the 1,258 artworks found in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt in the Bavarian capital in 2012. The now late Mr. Gurlitt was the son of German art dealer and historian Hildebrand Gurlitt, who traded in so-called “degenerate art” during the Nazi era and died in 1956.

The federal government, which has already invested €1.8 million ($1.96 million) in the work, will continue to fund the project.

The collection included old masters as well as expressionist and impressionist paintings by Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and many others. After German news magazine Focus reported the discovery in late 2013, the federal and Bavarian governments quickly set up the Schwabing Art Trove Taskforce to research the artworks’ origins.

It was initially given one year to determine their provenance, but the task proved difficult. The task force's report, finally delivered another year later on Thursday to German Culture Minister Monika Grütters, was a disappointment to many.

The discovery of the Gurlitt trove in spring 2012 was undisclosed to the public for a year and a half after the public prosecutor’s office in the Bavarian city of Augsburg impounded the collection on suspicion of tax evasion.

But an international scandal erupted when Focus reported on the Augsburg investigation in November 2013. The magazine told the story of Cornelius Gurlitt, then in his 80's, who had been guarding the art trove in his Munich-area apartment for decades. The collection was estimated to be worth billions.

Critics accused the German government of covering up the Nazi-related affair. For example, the Jewish Claims Conference, which seeks restitution for victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs, suspected another wrong was being perpetrated.

When the head of the Gurlitt-related task force, Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, officially submitted the report to Ms. Grütters, the culture minister admitted “a conflict of goals exists between thoroughness and speed.”

Thus, the laborious task of determining ownership of the artworks will continue at the newly founded German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg. The same experts who worked on the task force will continue their work there. They have been given another year, with the prospect of an extension. The federal government, which has already invested €1.8 million ($1.96 million) in the work, will also continue to fund the project.

Another aspect to the affair is an inheritance dispute involving the family of Cornelius Gurlitt, who had willed his estate to the Swiss Museum of Fine Arts Bern. The German government took over the museum’s provenance research to signal Berlin’s responsibility in determining proper ownership of the artworks. But the last minute, one of Mr. Gurlitt’s cousins asserted her claim and presented a posthumous expert opinion that questioned the art collector’s ability to make a will. After a counter expert opinion said Mr. Gurlitt was of sound mind when he made the will, a final decision by a court is expected in the spring.

This will not, however, have an effect on the continuing work of the existing research team, which is now under the direction of the former coordinator Andrea Baresel-Brand.

First, the team plans to devote itself to 117 works for which there is specific evidence of looting by the Nazi regime. Some 25 of these artworks have the “highest priority for further research.”

Of the 11 objects conclusively investigated, only five were determined to be looted art, among them the two paintings that were suspected from the start, "Riders on the Beach” by Max Liebermann and Matisse’s “Seated Woman.” Those artworks have been returned to the descendants of their rightful owners.

Given the research results to date, interest in the Gurlitt case has begun to decrease, despite the direct connection to Germany’s dark past. Still, the case illustrates the deficit in dealing with Nazi wrongs, even those discovered only in recent years. There are still countless works in both public and private collections that the Nazis stole from persecuted art collectors.

Shortly after the report was handed over, Ronald Lauder, spokesperson for the World Jewish Congress, criticized the results of the task force as “meager and not satisfactory.” He said he had expected more of Germany, especially since time is running out for the elderly descendents of the art's original owners.

He called every further delay “a slap in the face of the claimants.”


This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]