Investigating the Gurlitt collection

In February 2012, over 1,200 artworks were found hidden in a small flat in Munich owned by Cornelius Gurlitt – a shy, discreet and reclusive man. Another 238 artworks were found in Gurlitt’s second home in Salzburg in February 2014.

The collection included paintings by Cezanne, Chagall, Gaugin, Manet, Monet, Matisse, Renoir, and Picasso. But delight at the discovery was tinged with question marks over its provenance, which is the subject of ongoing research.

Gurlitt inherited the collection from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer linked to the Nazis. When Hildebrand died in 1956, Cornelius, who was just 24 at the time, was left with the burden of preserving the collection.

Broadly, the paintings can be divided into three main categories:

  • Works legitimately acquired in unforced sales before 1933, created after 1945, or created by a Gurlitt family member (several of whom were artists). Gurlitt inherited his father’s full, undisputed legal title to these works.
  • Works removed from public museums and collections as ‘degenerate’ art (abstract, impressionist and modern pieces of which the Nazis disapproved) pursuant to Nazi law. Hildebrand’s role was to sell these pieces abroad to raise funds for the Nazis. However records suggest that Hildebrand purchased some of them himself.
  • Works looted from, or sold under duress by Jewish families and other individuals fleeing the war. This last group is the main subject of dispute.

Law relating to the looted paintings

According to a German lawyer writing on a website devoted to Gurlitt, there are no grounds under German law that compel the return of the looted paintings. There is a 30-year limitation period starting on the date of the looting to seek the return of the works, which has now long expired. Limitation laws were enacted in the interests of legal certainty and closure, but do not take into account the moral and ethical arguments surrounding ownership of the paintings.

Neither can claimants rely on the Washington Principles, which provide that ‘fair and just solutions’ should be sought in cases of looted art. These non-binding principles only apply to public-sector organizations such as museums, and not to private individuals. Legally then, there was no obligation for Gurlitt to return the paintings.

Gurlitt always denied any wrongdoing and initially refused to discuss (or was not aware of) the possibility that any of the works were looted. However, he later agreed to cooperate with German authorities on establishing the paintings’ provenance, and returning them if they were shown to be stolen.

Gurlitt’s legacy to the Kunstmuseum Bern

In May 2014 Gurlitt died, aged 81, in his Munich apartment, following a period of illness. ‘When I’m dead, they can do with them what they want’, he once told Der Spiegel magazine.

Since Gurlitt’s death a handful of other works have been found. These include a Monet painting discovered in a suitcase he left behind at a hospital, and two sculptures found at his flat, thought to be by Rodin and Degas.

In a will written in the last few weeks of his life, Gurlitt – who had no close friends or immediate relatives – appointed the Kunstmuseum Bern as his sole heir. Leaving the collection to a museum outside Germany is seen by some as Gurlitt’s final act of revenge against the German authorities who took away his beloved paintings.

The museum described the legacy as ‘a bolt from the blue’, as it had no previous connection with Gurlitt. In a press release the museum said it was ‘surprised and delighted, but at the same time do[es] not wish to conceal the fact that this magnificent bequest brings with it a considerable burden of responsibility and a wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind, and questions in particular of a legal and ethical nature.’

Speculation followed as to whether the museum would accept the legacy, and as to the validity of the will, which was challenged by Gurlitt’s cousin on the basis that Gurlitt was not of sound mind when he made it.

Pending resolution of the challenge to the will, the museum reached an agreement with the German authorities and confirmed its acceptance of the legacy and the obligations that came with it.

Finding the rightful owners

A Task Force has been set up by the German federal government and the Bavarian state authorities to investigate the provenance of the Gurlitt collection. It is made up of expert provenance researchers and specialists experienced in the search for Nazi-confiscated art.

Using information found on the piece itself, such as signatures, dates, and stamps, the Task Force makes an initial assessment of provenance. Hildebrand’s business records and correspondence are also used, as well as Nazi inventory numbers or old museum stamps, which may indicate that a piece is ‘degenerate art’.

The Task Force use this information to prepare a provenance report. Depending on whether the work is looted or not determines what happens next:

  • If the work is not looted art, it is given to the Kunstmuseum Bern.
  • If the work is, or is very likely to be, looted art, its details and provenance report are published on the German Lost Art Database, Works are returned to the rightful owner, if one has been identified. If not, works are exhibited in Germany with an explanation of their origins, in the hope of finding the owner.
  •  If the Task Force is unable to determine whether a work is looted or not, the Kunstmuseum Bern will decide whether to take it. If the museum does not take the work, it will be exhibited in Germany, and its details published on the German Lost Art Database.
  • If the work is found to be ‘degenerate art’ removed from a publicly owned museum or collection, it will go to the Kunstmuseum Bern.

Making a claim

Given that the potential claimants were only children at the time the paintings disappeared, they may have only fading memories of their family’s collections. If someone recognizes a painting listed on the Lost Art database, they should contact the Task Force and provide any relevant information about the painting and the person who was dispossessed.

The Task Force will then check whether that person’s name appears in the relevant historical sources, and make enquiries to confirm that the claimant is the rightful heir.

In November 2014, it was reported that so far approximately 240 works in the Gurlitt Collection are now known to have been stolen, looted, or bought under duress. This includes a Matisse painting that was traced back to the collection of the art dealer Paul Rosenberg, and which has now been returned to his descendants.

Research is ongoing but is likely to take a considerable time to complete. The Kunstmuseum Bern intends to set up its own research department to assist with the provenance research.

Both the Task Force and the Kunstmuseum are committed to returning the works to their rightful owners. Anyone who believes that they may have a claim should contact the Task Force and seek legal advice.

Author: Becky Shaw, Art Law specialist at Boodle Hatfield LLP


5 thoughts on “Investigating the Gurlitt collection

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s