“Any transaction in 1935, where the sellers on the one side were Jews and the buyer on the other side was the Nazi state itself is by definition a void transaction”.
So argues Nicholas O’Donnell, an attorney representing descendants of the Jewish art dealers who sold a collection of medieval artworks known as the “Guelph” or “Welfenschatz” Treasure, allegedly under duress and threat of persecution. The complaint for the two heirs was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. to recover yesterday afternoon. The objects were part of the treasury of the Braunschweig cathedral and were used to store and display relics. The claimants allege that a group of Jewish art dealers were forced to sell the objects in 1935 to the German state of Prussia.
One unfortuante aspect here is that the German commission charged with resolving the claims of Nazi-era claimants was unable to achieve a satisfactory result for the claimants and the German government. One of the likely issues in this dispute will be one the timelinesss of this suit, whether a court will examine the circumstances surrounding an alleged forced sale nearly 80 years after it took place. The complaint alleges that the objects were sold under persecution for 4.15 million Reichsmarks (RM). If we do some rough back-of-the-envelope calculations, the exchange rate was 2.45 RM for $1. So that means the objects were sold for just shy of $1.7 million in 1935 dollars, which be nearly $28 million today. Considering the treasure may be worth as much as $226m, the German State seems to have received a pretty good bargain. The legal question will be whether that sale was under duress.
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 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.
Cornelius Gurlitt, the 81-year-old German man who gained prominence in the fall because he was revealed to have a massive amount of artwork has passed away after a heart procedure.
The Financial Times reports:
Several claims have been lodged on behalf of the descendants of people whose works were allegedly stolen under the Nazis. Among them are the heirs of David Friedmann, a German Jewish businessman, who have laid claim to the Max Liebermann painting “Two Riders on the Beach”. August Matteis, the US lawyer in the Friedmann case, said Mr Gurlitt “never had a role in the claim” because the painting clearly belonged to Mr Friedmann’s heirs.His death removed the tax investigation as a cause of delay because any tax owed to the authorities could be covered by the sale of Mr Gurlitt’s other works. “There must be no more paralysis for the sake of delay,” said Mr Matteis.
The NYT reports on the reaction by German officials:
Monika Grütters, who oversees cultural affairs for Germany’s federal government, issued a statement on Tuesday lauding Mr. Gurlitt for allowing the investigation of his collection. “As a private person, he set an example in his commitment to moral responsibility in seeking out fair and just solutions,” the statement said. “For this step, he was rightly accorded recognition and respect.” The German authorities have held the trove at an undisclosed location, citing security reasons for the secrecy. In February, an additional 238 works — some of them said to be top-quality paintings — were removed from Mr. Gurlitt’s second home, in Salzburg, Austria, and relocated also to an unnamed location. Mr. Gurlitt was last known to have sold a painting in December 2011, when the “Lion Tamer” by Beckmann fetched 864,000 euros, or $1.17 million, at an auction in Cologne, Germany. The auction house, Lempertz, said it brokered an agreement for some of the money to go to heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art dealer who was forced to leave Germany and died a poor man in London in 1937. Although reporters from around the world camped outside his Munich apartment for weeks after his art collection was revealed, Mr. Gurlitt gave only one interview, to the news weekly Der Spiegel. In that conversation, he revealed little about his life, saying that the only thing he had loved were his pictures.
The question now is what becomes of Gurlitt’s estate, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:
Although that investigation will lapse now that Mr. Gurlitt is dead, fresh hurdles abound, mainly surrounding a simple question: who has inherited Mr. Gurlitt’s estate? Christopher Marinello, a lawyer for the Rosenberg heirs, says the family will continue pursuing the case, but that “we’ll have to wait for the estate process to run its course.” It is unclear, though, whom Mr. Marinello should even contact or who will be handling the estate process.
Given Mr. Gurlitt’s perpetually frail state of health, a German court appointed Munich-based lawyer Christoph Edel as his legal guardian late last year. But Mr. Edel’s position was “voided as soon as Mr. Gurlitt died,” his spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Holzinger says he doesn’t even know if Mr. Gurlitt has a will and that his own contract will only continue for “the next few days.”
In a provocatively-titled op-ed in the conversation, Tess Davis and Marc Masurovsky argue that a proposed bill would make American art museums a haven for stolen art by allowing them to “knowingly exhibit stolen art”. Their argument:
On March 25, backed by the art trade lobby, Republican Congressman Steve Chabot reintroduced the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act to the House of Representatives. On its face, HR 4292 asks Congress to “clarify” a small section of the the law. But in truth, the bill goes far beyond mere clarification.
It would instead undo established US law and policy by allowing American cultural institutions to block legal claims to artwork on loan from abroad. Museums would knowingly be able to exhibit stolen and looted art and antiquities. It would leave the rightful owners without any legal recourse to recover their property in US courts.
This bill is just the latest attempt by the less responsible players in the art market to weaken US law. American legal principles have long held that a thief cannot transfer good title. The receipt, possession, and transport of stolen property is a crime. US legislation has carved out a narrow exception to prevent the judicial seizure of art imported for exhibition, but only in very limited circumstances, which it clearly enumerates. HR 4292 would greatly expand this exception by divesting our courts of all jurisdiction over such objects.
Those are strong statements. And it must be said that the text of the proposed bill, at least by my reading, seems to do just the opposite. It makes it easier for Nazi-era claimants to pursue claims against possessors who send their art on temporary exhibition to the U.S.
It clarifies the concept of “commercial activity”; something needed after a 2005 case, Malewicz v
. City of Amsterdam, which saw heirs of Malevich bringing suit against Amsterdam in federal court in Washington D.C.
Since 1965 the Exemption from Judicial Seizure of Cultural Objects Imported for Temporary Exhibition act grants immunity for temporary exhibitions for material being brought into the U.S. if the loan is in the national interest, and the objects are of cultural significance. Rick St. Hilaire and others have supported this clarification. And on its face the clarification seems necessary. Perhaps what Masurovsky and Davis really want is an end to all art immunizations—but they don’t really come out and say that. Instead they accuse Americn Museums of knowingly exhibiting and gathering stolen art. Though there are certainly examples of this on the extreme margins, the examples that the authors use both cut against their underlying position. The Portrait of Wally litigation never involved Federal immunity, only New York State immunity. And the Koh Ker material was not loaned to the United States, it was acquired or up for auction, and the Federal Prosecutors initiated forfeiture actions.
I am not a provenance researcher, and I am not familiar with how in-depth the State Department grants of immunity checks are, but it seems to me the authors have exaggerated their position. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see any example of any museum in North America being able to knowingly exhibit stolen material.
Ardelia Ripley Hall (1899–1979) served from 1946 until 1962 as the Fine Arts and Monuments Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. In this role she oversaw the recovery and restitution of movable cultural property that had been displaced during the Second World War. In spite of her vast accomplishments, almost nothing has been written on Ardelia Hall, and little is known about her life. She began her career at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but personal circumstances led to her resignation in 1941. During the war, she was employed by the Office of Strategic Services. The expertise she established as an art historian working with the Roberts Commission at this time led to her appointment at the State Department in 1946. This essay traces for the first time Hall’s remarkable journey from curatorial researcher to adviser on international art restitution.
Victoria Reed, Ardelia Hall: From Museum of Fine Arts to Monuments Woman, FirstView International Journal of Cultural Property 1–15 (2014).
The interesting story is how Gurlitt and his father were able to explain and justify the possession of these works for so many years, else keep it so well-hidden. The 30-year German statute of limitations on stolen art claims now also supports his current possession (though if there is any evidence Gurlitt knew these works were stolen would surely be grounds for challenging his possession).
His lawyers claim that with “clear evidence” Mr. Gurlitt will return works to claimants. Gathering that evidence is of course extremely difficult. And how clear is clear: