Gurlitt saga comes to anticlimactic end

After two years of research at a cost of €1.8 million (£1.4 million), investigations by German authorities into the Gurlitt trove of artworks have reached what many consider to be an anti-climax.

When we first began following the Gurlitt saga in February 2015 we reported that a dedicated task force had been assigned in 2012 to research the provenance of works in the collection.

The investigation was prompted by the discovery of some 1,500 works of art in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich and Salzburg properties between February 2012 and 2014. Inherited from his father Hildebrand, an art dealer employed by the Nazis and a buyer for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Austria, they include pieces by Monet, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso.

With many of the works thought to have been looted by the Nazis, it was hoped the task force would shed light on their shadowy ownership history. On the contrary, its final report which was presented last Thursday in Berlin (14 January) has failed to dazzle.

Among its key findings:

  • only 5 of the 1,500 works under investigation were stolen from Jewish families during World War II (4 of these have already been restituted)
  • a further 157 works are identified as having been plundered from other sources
  • only 13 works in the entire collection have had their provenance definitively established.

The task force has drawn sharp criticism for its high cost, perceived lack of transparency and slow progress. Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, described its findings as “meagre and not satisfactory”. Sharing his frustration, the Art Recovery Group’s Christopher Marinello told artnet News that “The German government dropped the ball on this one.”

Marinello helped to secure the restitution of Matisse’s ‘Woman with a Fan’ (1923) to the family of Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg after it was found in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment in 2012. Reacting to the task force’s findings, he was dismayed by what he saw as a missed “golden opportunity to show real leadership around provenance research and restitution issues.”

Defending her team’s work, task force director Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel explained that legal action over the validity of Cornelius Gurlitt’s will, covered in our post here, complicated their investigations.

Although the task force has been disbanded, the Gurlitt saga will continue as further research into the collection is to be taken up by the newly established Stiftung Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation).

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