Updates: Gurlitt Collection: Will challenge rejected, Hildebrand’s documents to be published online, fourth painting identified as looted to be returned

Since our last two articles (here and here) there have been several developments in the ongoing saga of the Gurlitt collection. 


To recap, in his will made just a few weeks before he died, Cornelius Gurlitt left the entirety of his valuable collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern, which he appointed as his sole heir. However one of Gurlitt’s cousin’s, Ute Werner, challenged the validity of the will on the basis that Cornelius lacked the necessary mental capacity to make it.

At the end of March, the Munich court rejected Ms Werner’s challenge. In a (German) statement, the court said that the will was valid and that the appointment of the Kunstmuseum Bern as the sole heir was effective. Ms Werner has one month from the date of the decision to decide whether to appeal to a higher court. Ms Werner’s spokesman said that her lawyers would “closely review the reasons for the decision, after which Ms Wener will decide how to proceed.”

The Kunstmuseum Bern said that it welcomed the decision and was ready to take on the responsibility that came with the collection. It reiterated that it would not accept any works where there was any suspicion that they were looted. Once the appeal period had expired, and providing there was no appeal, the museum would get started on its work.


Letters, photographs, business correspondence and images that belonged to Hildebrand Gurlitt (Cornelius’ father) running to over 15,000 pages are to be digitized and made available online by the Gurlitt family, according to Artnet news. The Gurlitt family, which has criticised the delays in restituting looted works, made the move in the interests of transparency and to assist the provenance research.

In an unprecedented move, names of buyers and sellers will not be redacted in the documents, which were taken from Cornelius’ home following discovery of the collection. Due to Hildebrand’s involvement with acquiring art in the 1930s and 1940s for the planned Führermuseum in Linz, the documents may have wider implications beyond the paintings discovered in Munich.

The documents will be released on a rolling basis throughout the year. Read more (in German) in the Suddeutsche Zeitung and the Berner Zeitung.

These documents will add to the records already available on the German Lost Art Database website, which include Hildebrand Gurlitt’s account books from 1937-1941.


Until last week, the Task Force had identified three paintings as ‘looted art’ to be returned: Two Riders on the Beach by Max Liebermann, Seated Woman by Henri Matisse, and The Cardplayers, by Carl Spitzweg. A fourth has now been added: The Seine seen from the Pont-Neuf, the Louvre in the background by Camille Pissarro.

Reasons for the delay in actually returning any pieces has been a matter of debate. The Kunstmuseum referred to the (now hopefully resolved) challenge to the will by Ms Werner. Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International, who is seeking the return of the Seated Woman by Matisse on behalf of the descendants of Paul Rosenberg, rejected this, telling Artnet news that the will dispute should not delay the restitution of the work. He said that an agreement signed by Ms Werner’s family and the Rosenberg heirs “represents an unconditional renunciation of any interest in the Rosenberg Matisse” and “removes any impediment to immediate restitution of this looted work…” This was followed by another statement from the Kunstmuseum citing the need for court approval as another reason for delay. Whatever the reason, the delay in returning any works has led to criticism of the German authorities, who responded to defend the process as “essential to ensure that the paintings are restituted to the correct members of some of the widely branched families.”

Progress is slowly being made however, and on 1 April, Monika Grütters, the German Minister for Culture, announced that agreements have been signed for the return of both the Liebermann and the Matisse paintings. Ms Grütters said that (translation): “It’s very important for me to return the work as quickly as possible. Again, it is less about the physical component but rather the recognition of the family history of suffering. Following the decision of the District Court of Munich, which confirms the Kunstmuseum Bern as heir, I hope that the dispute over the inheritance will soon finally settled. Then restitution and the work of the Task Force can be carried out free from legal disputes between heirs and in accordance with the victims and their descendants.”

Ms Grütters also announced the launch of the Task Force’s newly revamped website, currently in German, with an English version to follow.

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

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