Looted Art A Disputed Legacy

The Museum of Fine Arts in Bern has decided to accept the Gurlitt collection. As many pieces are suspected to have been stolen or confiscated during World War II, the decision is a controversial one.
Matisse's Woman Sitting in a Chair ia part of the Gurlitt collection.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Bern this morning announced its decision to accept a controversial art collection previously owned by Cornelius Gurlitt.

Together with the German government and the state of Bavaria, the museum said it will take on the collection, even though it may contain works of art which were stolen from their original owners during World War II. 

The museum said it wants to uphold its "historical responsibility" and return any looted art to its owners, or to the German government. 

The collection is believed to contain many paintings that were part of the Nazis’ campaign against what they called 'degenerate art' as well as art which may have been looted.

Mr. Gurlitt had bequeathed his collection to the museum in Bern, but given the controversial history of many of the works, it was unclear whether the museum would accept the gift.

Mr. Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was one of four art traders employed by the Nazis. Appointed by Joseph Goebbels, he was charged with marketing works of art abroad which the Nazis had seized.

These works encompassed pieces by French Fauve artist Henri Matisse to  German Bauhaus painter Paul Klee. After the war, Mr. Gurlitt had told the United States' army that his collection had been destroyed in the fire of Dresden in 1945.

But in early 2012, over one thousand works were seized by the Bavarian authorities from his son Cornelius' apartment.

Yariv Egozi, the owner of the largest auction house in Tel Aviv, Egozi Gallery, said the museum should not accept stolen art bequeathed by a collector who does not own the works.

“The museum will have to give it away – looted art must be returned to its rightful owners. The museum has an obligation to the public and can't showcase art that it doesn’t own,” Mr. Egozi told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

An investigation to determine who owns the works is underway. But this could take years; in the meantime, the art should be stored under suitable conditions, he said.

“Given the kind of conditions art works are exposed to when the police are in charge of them, in warehouses and so on, it makes sense to let a museum take care of them for the meantime,” Mr. Egozi said.

But not everyone is convinced that Mr. Gurlitt is not the rightful owner. Mr. Gurlitt’s website, which is still accessible although he died in May this year, states that “there are no legal grounds that would compel Cornelius Gurlitt to return the  art. In most cases, the present owners or their legal heirs have gained titles to the works that were taken away.”

Mr. Stephan Holzinger, who was a spokesperson for Mr. Gurlitt, said that from a legal point of view, any entitlement claims had expired.

"At the end it's a moral and political question, and Mr. Gurlitt's efforts went far beyond his legal obligations."

On April 7 this year, Mr. Gurlitt had agreed to let a special task force research the provenance of paintings in his collection which were suspected to have been confiscated as degenerate, or believed to have been looted. This followed an agreement between the state of Bavaria and the German government and Mr. Gurlitt.

The research to determine the ownership of the pictures was supposed to take one year.

Among the questions which remain open, there is one about Mr. Gurlitt's motives in leaving the collection to the museum, rather than his relatives. This is one of "the many secrets" in the matter, Mr. Holzinger said.


Sarah Mewes writes about art and culture as an editor for Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact her: [email protected]