A painting by Camille Pissarro and a drawing by Adolph Menzel are two of four works to have been returned to their rightful owners since investigations into the collection’s questionable provenance began in 2012. A German government team tasked with researching the Gurlitt collection have suggested that a further 91 artworks are suspected of being looted from, or sold under duress by Jewish families fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II.
Pissarro’s ‘View of the Seine from the Pont-Neuf’ was returned to the heirs of Max Heilbronn, a French Jewish businessman, last Friday (17 February). On Monday (20 February) Menzel’s drawing of a Gothic church interior was restituted to the descendants of Elsa Helen Cohen. To buy safe passage to the USA, Elsa sold the Menzel to Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer linked to the Nazis, in 1938.
Investigations conducted by German authorities into the Gurlitt collection were opened after over 1,200 artworks were discovered in the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, Hildebrand’s son, in February 2012. A further 238 pieces were unearthed at Cornelius’ Salzburg home in February 2014. The vast collection includes works by Cezanne, Chagall, Monet, Renoir and Picasso.
A report by the German investigators presented in January 2016 revealed that only 5 of 1,500 works in the Gurlitt collection were stolen from Jewish families in World War II. The task force was sharply criticised by art recovery specialists for its high cost, slow progress and perceived lack of transparency.
The restitution of the Menzel and Pissarro was announced by the German government and the Kunstmuseum in Bern, which inherited the Gurlitt collection on Cornelius’ death in 2014. In a press release, German Culture Minister Monika Grütters stated that ‘Germany must do everything to clarify the personal fates of persecuted people…who saw themselves forced into selling artworks at that time, and return them to the heirs with no ifs or buts’.