Even hoarders of art have rights

A Sketch by Canalletto
One of the works recovered in Munich, a sketch by Canaletto

Some of the dust has settled after the frenzied early reports about the cache of art found in a Munich apartment. We can start to see what the discovery of all this art means. The Art Newspaper has the best English-language account I’ve seen of the press conference yesterday. We know that German authorities seized 121 framed works; and 1,285 unframed works. The search of the apartment occurred in February 2012—not in 2011 as many initial reports indicated. Cornelius Gurlitt also owns a home in Salzburg, Austria, and his immediate location is not known. The authorities in Augsburg invite individuals who may be seeking the return of art to contact the prosecutor’s office there.

There has been a great deal of criticism levied against German officials. But I’ve yet to see any wrongdoing on their part. An 18 month delay does not strike me as unjustified given the enormity of this recovery and the difficult task uncovering the history of all these works. As unpleasant as it may be, we have to remember that Mr. Gurlitt has rights, and nations cannot just strip him of his property rights. It appears as if original owners may be able to be tracked down for much of this art. But for art spoliated during World War II, there was a wide spectrum of art that was taken—from outright theft on one end to sales under duress, to even some fair transactions at the other. Its also possible that Gurlitt may have good title to a substantial portion of this art. The German authorities are likely examining how best to navigate this difficult issue. If it appears like they were misleading or held ulterior motives, then criticism is certainly warranted, but I’ve yet to see it.

Rather than release a list of the works and their images, German authorities have made the decision to task one individual, Meike Hoffmann, an art historian, to research potential claimants. Reinhard Nemetz, the chief prosecutor in Augsburg said the list won’t be published as:

We would prefer to have people coming to us to tell us which pictures they are missing than making them public and having 10 claimants for each one…

So rather than a host of conflicting claims, prosecutors can match existing claimants.

It may also be wise to temper some of the claims about the value of all this art. the AP spoke with Christoph Zuschlag, an expert on so-called ‘degenerate art’:

We need to see whether these were originals or prints…

Continuing that of the 21,000 pieces of ‘degenerate’ art which were seized, 2/3 were prints. Only 1/3 were originals.

That is an appropriately cautious way to think about all this art I think. Because one of the most interesting things this discovery may signal is how much we might be mistaken about the Nazi’s and ‘degenerate’ art. As Jonathan Jones writes:

Gurlitt’s cache reveals that many assumptions about the Nazis and art are simply untrue. The Degenerate Art exhibition was real enough – but did it really mean the Nazis hated modern art? It is because we take this for granted that no one has been searching for lost “degenerate” works such as those in the flat in Munich. Some works from the Entartete Kunst exhibition, many seized from once-progressive German museums, were sold abroad afterwards. Others have vanished. As the war began and Nazi racial policies became ever more explicit, more modern and pre-modern works were seized or bought for a pittance from Jewish owners. Much was destroyed. Or was it?

 

Michalska, Julia. “Details of Naziloot Cache Revealed.” The Art Newspaper, Nov. 5, 2013.  
Smale, Alison. “Report of Nazi-Looted Trove Puts Art World in an UproarThe New York Times, November 4, 2013. 
AP. “German Gov’t Helping Probe Into Huge Art Find.” via ABC News, November 4, 2013. 

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