Art law in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

20625578Design and proportion are the things that stand out in any Wes Anderson film. But in his new film it is Art with a capital ‘A’ that stands out. Art is the looming plot engine in Anderson’s excellent new film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. The film travels back in time through a series of flashbacks, starting first in 1985 at the grave of a writer who had visited the hotel, then to 1968 when that author dined with the Hotel’s owner, Zero Mustafa. And then finally the film flashes all the way back to the 1930s when Zero was a protégé of Mr. Gustave H. (played by Ralph Fiennes). Many critics have pointed out the whimsical nature of much of the film, how it carries us to a simpler time before the horrors of the Second World War and the holocaust. A prison scene with Fiennes and his jailmates using a “throatslitter” to divide sweets made me laugh out loud, and also a little queasy.

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Cornelius Gurlitt to return art to their original owners

Claude Monet's "Waterloo Bridge", which according to the BBC has not been seen in 75 years
Claude Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge”, which according to the BBC has not been seen in 75 years

Back in November, Germany’s Focus magazine reported that German tax officials had discovered a trove of hundreds of works of art by Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Renoir and others. They were found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer during the Nazi-era named Hildebrand Gurlitt. Well now it seems the inevitable decision has been made by Gurlitt to return the works of art to rightful owners. This seemed the inevitable result, it was just a matter of whether court action would be necessary to compel the return of many of these objects. And it may still, but for now Gurlitt appears to be making fast efforts to settle claims over these works.

The New York Times reports:

Mr. Gurlitt’s lawyers are in talks to return “Seated Woman/Woman Sitting in Armchair” to the descendants of Paul Rosenberg, a French art dealer whose family recognized the work when it was made public last year.

“The agreement is not yet signed, but it will certainly happen,” Mr. Gurlitt’s spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, said.

Christoph Edel, a lawyer appointed by a Munich court to handle Mr. Gurlitt’s health, financial and legal affairs, told the German broadcaster ARD that more deals were coming. Mr. Gurlitt, 81, who has heart problems, underwent surgery recently and has been slow to recover, leading the court to appoint a legal guardian.

But it is also true that the amount of art Gurlitt has in his possession keeps growing larger. Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

In February, another 60 works of art were found in a house in Salzburg, Austria. A preliminary assessment has found no evidence that the pieces in Austria were stolen or looted by the Nazis, Holzinger said at the time.

The Salzburg portion of Gurlitt’s collection is bigger than was initially apparent and contains 238 art objects, including 39 oil paintings, according to the statement released by Holzinger yesterday.

Of the 39 paintings, seven are attributed landscape painter Louis Gurlitt, who died in 1897 and was the grandfather of Cornelius Gurlitt. Among the other paintings and watercolors are works by Claude Monet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Eduard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissaro, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Liebermann, Paul Cezanne and Emile Nolde, according to the statement.

Stephen Evans for the BBC has a video with access to the undisclosed location where much of this art is being stored.

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. 

Massive trove of modern art discovered

The apartment block in Munich where 1500 were discovered in 2011
The apartment block in Munich where 1500 were discovered in 2011

The recovery rate for stolen art may take a dramatic shift towards original owners. The German magazine Focus has broken the story of an incredible find. One of the most remarkable discoveries of stolen art that I can think of. A reported 1,500 works of art by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Klee, and others was stored in an apartment in Berlin for years. The works were likely spoliated by Nazis during the 1930s-40s.

When authorities executed a search warrant they found the works stacked in a dark room in a flat in this apartment block in Munich. They were hidden there by Cornelius Gurlitt, now 80, who was the son of a Munich art dealer.

The works were discovered after tax authorities executed a search warrant of Gurlitt’s apartment in 2011. He was stopped on a train bound for Switzerland with 9,000 euros in cash, and had plans to deposit the money in undeclared Swiss accounts. When the authorities searched his home they found what must be one of the largest ever single recoveries of stolen art.

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Student note on restituting Nazi-Looted art

Katherine N. Skinner has a student note titled “Restituting Nazi-Looted Art: Domestic, Legislative, and Binding Intervention to Balance the Interests of Victims and Museums“, 15 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 673. From the abstract:

The Nazis engaged in widespread art looting from Holocaust victims, either taking the artwork outright or using legal formalities to effect a transfer of title under duress. Years later, US museums acquired some of these pieces on a good-faith basis. Now, however, they face lawsuits by the heirs of Holocaust victims, who seek to have the museums return the artwork. Though good title cannot pass to the owner of stolen property under US law, unfavorable statutes of limitations, high financial hurdles, or discovery problems, among other obstacles, bar many of these claimants from seeking recovery. Though some museums have amicably settled with claimants, museums’ otherwise resistant responses are not surprising, considering the “cultural internationalist” attitude they adopt toward restitution in general. US federal action to resolve the issue of Nazi-art restitution has been aspirational rather than practical, and courts are not ideally suited to handle the difficult policy implications present on a one-off basis. Additionally, museums have not been faithful to their self-imposed ethical guidelines, which promote full out-of-court cooperation with claimants seeking restitution for Nazi-looted art. Therefore, this Note proposes that Congress step in to create a binding, uniform, domestic body to hear and resolve Nazi-art restitution claims brought against museums. Such a forum would eliminate many of the initial obstacles claimants face, and with its narrowly tailored application it would prevent museums from becoming more vulnerable to restitution claims in other contexts. Finally, with a sunset provision followed by a presumption against restitution, such legislation would provide museums a respite from facing these claims eternally.

If you are writing in the field and would like me to post your abstract, just drop me a comment below, or email me at derek.fincham ‘at’ gmail.com.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

International Symposium on Nazi-looted art at the Peace Palace, Nov. 27

I have been forwarded some details about an international symposium: Fair and Just Solutions? Alternatives to Litigation in Nazi-Looted Art Disputes: Status Quo and New Developments. The symposium is taking place in the Peace Palace in the Hague, the Netherlands on 27 November 2012.

This symposium is being staged to mark the tenth anniversary of the Dutch Restitutions Committee, an independent committee that advises on claims relating to Nazi-looted art. The chairman of the Restitutions Committee is Willibrord Davids. During the symposium five European looted-art advisory committees, distinguished scholars, experts, representatives of museums, art dealers, auction houses and pressure groups will explore the question of how to reach a fair and just solution in disputes about Nazi-looted art. Attendees at the symposium will not only gain a good overview of the current state of affairs, but will also be able to share their thoughts about desirable developments in the future. Registration for the symposium is open to anyone with an interest. For more practical information about the main issues, the programme and the registration form please go to the Restitutions Committee’s website: http://www.restitutiecommissie.nl/en/symposium_introduction.html.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com