Litigation seems inevitable in the Gurlitt case


Next week the Kunstmuseum in Bern will announce if it will accept the bequest of 1300 works of art from Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitt’s father was art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, operating during World War II. As a consequence a large number of these works will have possibly been stolen or forcibly taken during the Nazi regime. Receiving these works will be a challenge for whoever ultimately gets them. But the likely result no matter what will be litigation. There has never been such a large and contested body of artworks collected in one estate, but even if this were just a mundane estate without Nazi-era art association, large estates often carry with them the likelihood of litigation.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Kunstmuseum is expected to accept the works:

The Kunstmuseum Bern’s legal team has been researching the artworks’ provenance since the museum was informed of the bequest on May 7. Barring a last-minute legal discovery that could scuttle the deal, the museum’s board of directors will accept the gift at its meeting on Saturday, the last of half a dozen deliberations regarding Mr. Gurlitt’s bequest. . . . Much of the delay in accepting the trove has come because the tiny museum needed to secure seven-figure private funding from Swiss donors to be as free as possible of German funding that the museum thought could taint the neutrality of their provenance research, people familiar with the deliberations said.This was a daunting task for the board members. The museum lacks the financial backing of other Swiss museums like Fondation Beyeler. Unlike European and American museum boards filled with wealthy collectors and art world insiders, the Kunstmuseum Bern’s board comprises local government officials and academics.

But Nina Neuhaus writes that one of Gurlitt’s cousins, Uta Werner may challenge the validity of Gurlitt’s will:

[She] has threatened to challenge the will. Her claim is based on a psychiatric report, which she had commissioned from Dr Helmut Hausner, chief physician at the psychiatric clinic at the University Hospital Regensburg. The conclusion of the psychiatric report is that Mr Gurlitt was suffering from a “a slight dementia, a schizoid personality disorder, and a delusional disorder” when making his will on 9th January 2014. (See Section 2229(4) of the German Civil Code: A person who is incapable of realising the importance of a declaration of intent made by him and of acting in accordance with this realisation on account of pathological mental disturbance, mental deficiency or derangement of the senses may not make a will.)

If the challenge of the will is successful, Gurlitt’s two cousins and not the Museum of Fine Arts Bern will become the rightful owners of the art collection. (See Section 1926(1) of the German Civil Code: Heirs on intestacy of the third degree are the grandparents of the deceased and their descendants.)

Nicholas O’Donnell thinks the problems with the will are real:

It is far from a forgone conclusion, however, that his last-minute will would hold up under scrutiny. The circumstances alone—an elderly person, under enormous international scrutiny, placed under a guardianship—beg the question.

One possible solution, Alfred Weidinger argues that the works should be sold to benefit Jewish organisations, and thinks the German authorities made a major mistake in simply seizing the works without first reaching a settlement with Gurlitt:

Germany made the great mistake of storming Gurlitt’s apartment without attempting to reach an agreement with him first, because we all know that this is about private restitution. In a case like this, the only possibility is reaching a settlement by mutual consent. In Germany at the moment, it really doesn’t matter where works turn up, or how tainted the provenance of works hanging in museums is, because there is no art restitution law. This is the major institutional problem: the federal government has more or less assigned art and culture agendas to its constituent Länder and there is no unified stance.


One thought on “Litigation seems inevitable in the Gurlitt case”

  1. What if a nation does not respond to a series of offers to return an artifact found in its boundaries and taken to the U.S.? You may recall my situation that began in 1977. Two unstable Middle Eastern countries have stated they would accept the artifact as a gift, one with a public acceptance in D.C. What suggestion to you have to cope with this?
    Clyde Hostetter

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