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Forum: Should the Kunstmuseum Bern have accepted the Gurlitt bequest?

30 March 2015

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The German art hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt died in May 2014, a month after an agreement had been reached for hundreds of artworks seized by German authorities in 2012 to be returned to him. This was conditional on his cooperation in any ensuing restitution claims concerning artworks that had been looted or otherwise unlawfully acquired during the Nazi era. In his will, Gurlitt named the Kunstmuseum Bern as his sole heir – an inheritance freighted with great ethical and legal responsibilities, but one that was accepted by the museum in November last year. Apollo asked Matthias Frehner, the museum’s director, and David Lewis, co-founder and co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, to evaluate the situation.

Matthias Frehner, director of the Kunstmuseum Bern

The Gurlitt collection has become a sensation. You can count on the fingers of one hand the people who have seen it in its entirety. Since its ‘discovery’ in various stages – first the ‘Schwabing Art Trove’, then the ‘Salzburg Find’ and lastly, after Cornelius Gurlitt’s death, the ‘Suitcase Find’ – the collection has been the focus of enormous media attention. It owes its celebrity status to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding how the German art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895–1956) acquired the collection. The fact that the collection was hidden from the public until Bavarian prosecutors confiscated it from his heir, Cornelius Gurlitt (1932–2014), gives it the aura of a long-lost treasure that has now been rediscovered. Today, thousands of important artworks that were stolen during the Nazi era or obtained by extortion from their Jewish owners, or indeed from other private and public owners, are still missing. And although Hildebrand Gurlitt was a quarter Jewish and therefore suffered restrictions himself, there are direct links from him and his collection to figures at the centre of the Third Reich’s cultural politics, and it is now proven that some stolen works were among his acquisitions. A conclusive examination of the provenance of all the works in his collection is an absolute necessity.

The Gurlitt collection was not systematically created. It is the result of unique circumstances, and perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it an accumulation of various bundles of works. However, Hildebrand Gurlitt had a connoisseur’s eye; the heterogeneous groups of works are united by their high quality. Gurlitt lost his post as a museum director because of the Nazis. Forced to find other work he became an art dealer, initially for his friends, many of whom were German Expressionists. For that reason the Nazis entrusted to him, along with three other art dealers, the sale of ‘degenerate art’ abroad.

Around 500 works of ‘degenerate art’ on paper, some of them very important works, are now in the collection that his son’s will bequeathes to the Kunstmuseum Bern. Around 300 works are from the family’s own artists, Louis and Cornelia Gurlitt. Louis was a North German realist landscape painter and Cornelia, who died young, was an Expressionist. The rest of the works are not of transparent provenance. Most of them were acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt on the Parisian art market during the German occupation, at which time he was active as a buyer for the Führer’s collection. These latter artworks include paintings by the Old Masters, drawings from the 17th to 19th centuries, Expressionist artworks, and French art from Corot to Signac. There are paintings and sculptures by Corot, Courbet, Daubigny, Millet, Manet, Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Signac, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Maillol of interest to art museums.

A task force, first created by the German government and the state of Bavaria to investigate the Schwabing find, will examine around 700 works whose provenance is uncertain. It has so far identified four works as definitely stolen. The Kunstmuseum Bern was aware of the issue and has taken account of it in its decisions. The agreement between the museum foundation, the German government and the state of Bavaria asserts that all works of uncertain provenance become the property of the German state. Germany alone is responsible for the restitution of stolen art. Only those works whose provenance can be proven to be free of the suspicion of theft will be accepted into the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern.

The museum’s board of trustees was conscious that Cornelius Gurlitt’s donation came with a considerable responsibility. That was why the museum put photographic documentation of all the collection’s works on the internet within a few days of the signing of the agreement. And it has committed to a six-year research post in order – in consultation with the task force – to investigate and make public Hildebrand and Cornelius Gurlitt’s extensive written archive.

The Kunstmuseum Bern’s acceptance of Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection is an important commitment on our behalf. With the research post we will help to solve cases of art theft. The exhibitions that we will stage with the artworks in Bern will bring exceptional works of art, long out of view, back into artistic discourse. Before we can begin these tasks, there must be a legal decision regarding Gurlitt’s relatives’ challenge to his will. Hopefully the court case will not delay the restitution of stolen artworks.

David Lewis, Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe

The revelation of the Gurlitt hoard of artworks in Munich caused consternation in several places: firstly with the German authorities, who had known of it for 18 months prior to it being made public; secondly with those German, Austrian and Swiss dealers who had known of it for decades but who did not disclose its existence; and thirdly with the heirs of families whose looted possessions appeared to have been part of the Gurlitt collection.

The 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art apply to public collections. The Gurlitt hoard was in private hands, having been left by Hildebrand Gurlitt, a principal advisor to Hitler, to his wife and then to his son Cornelius, who secretly kept it in his apartment and in another location in Salzburg for decades, selling the occasional work for financial gain.

German law still operates a statute of limitations, but after an international public outcry a task force was established to seek to identify those works within the collection that had been looted and to invite claimants or their representatives to apply for restitution. Sadly little progress was made. Requests for transparency were largely unheeded. No meaningful timetable was established.

In the midst of this Cornelius Gurlitt died. He had left a will wherein the collection was donated to the Kunstmuseum Bern. Other than his trips to dealers, particularly in Bern, it has not yet been clearly established what, if any, connection Gurlitt had with Switzerland.

We believe it is right that the museum accepted the legacy. It could have rejected it outright on the basis that parts of it are clearly tainted: the hoard would have remained in Germany, subject to all the delays and bureaucratic procedures that have prevailed to date. Acceptance of the legacy gives an opportunity for a proper objective review of its content through the research body to be established.

Notwithstanding efforts made at federal government level, the practicalities of dealing with embedded procedures within the German museum community are a major inhibition to unravelling the origins of a huge number of art objects that remain in Germany. It is not an easy task, but equally had it been properly initiated after the 1998 Washington Conference much progress could have been made. This has not happened in spite of many protestations and apparent initiatives. Additionally where works are held privately in Germany, the legal system makes it intensely difficult to make any progress and there appears to be little willingness to change this.

The transfer of this particular collection into a different jurisdiction does therefore potentially create a major opportunity for an objective and transparent review, with the possibility of creating an example both for Germany and for Switzerland and other countries such as France and Italy, where many works remain in public and private collections that appear to have been looted. Restitution of these works will not happen without leadership, effort and a willingness to facilitate research.

The Kunstmuseum Bern faced a complex moral and ethical issue as to whether it should accept a legacy of which one third are considered to be possibly looted works. However, on the basis that it pledges to research the collection transparently and speedily and to publicise the results and all the documentation, this is a positive step that may be a catalyst to a more responsible approach, even after all these years, to the identification and where possible the restitution of works that were the subject of forced sales or directly looted.

Notwithstanding claims to invalidate Gurlitt’s will, the desirable outcome is that the matter will be out of German government jurisdiction, with an opportunity for fair and equitable consideration of claims through the Bern research body. However it appears that it will be subject to the decisions of the German task force which thus far has had sole decision making power. The research body needs to be independent, and all Swiss museums need to examine their record on publication of provenance research.

This hitherto secret hoard will hopefully emerge from Bern with full unredacted disclosure of all documents, to enable transparent consideration of its provenance and legitimate claims from heirs to be prepared, submitted and actioned in an open, equitable and timely manner. This will create an important precedent whether in Germany, Switzerland, or other countries where Nazi-looted art still remains, for full and speedy disclosure, full co-operation, and to create at least some closure to the appalling consequences of those actions from the Nazi era.

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Is it ever justifiable to burn a fake? Is the golden age of art schools over? Are online auctions the future of the art trade? Catch up on all our previous Forum discussions here.

Related Articles

Cornelius Gurlitt dies in Munich (Maggie Gray)

More art discovered in Cornelius Gurlitt’s home (Maggie Gray)

Second Gurlitt hoard comes to light (Maggie Gray)

Cache of art found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment (Corinna Lotz)

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 4.0)