Litigation seems inevitable in the Gurlitt case

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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.

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Cornelius Gurlitt has died (but leaves a lot of art behind)

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

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.”

Melissa Eddy & Alison Smale, Cornelius Gurlitt, Scrutinized Son of Nazi-Era Art Dealer, Is Dead at 81, The New York Times, May 6, 2014.
Mary M. Lane, German Art Collector in Nazi Loot Uproar Dies, Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2014.
Stefan Wagstyl, Cornelius Gurlitt, Son of Nazi Era Art Dealer, Dies, Financial Times, May 6, 2014.

60 minutes tackles the Gurlitt art hoard

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:

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Repatriation by popular referendum

John Constable's "Dedham from Langham"
John Constable’s “Dedham from Langham”

Doreen Carvajal reports for the New York Times on a novel effort by Alain Monteagle to recover this work of art seized from his family in France during World War II. Monteagle is attempting to gather enough signatures to force a referendum:

So Mr. Monteagle and his relatives have taken to the soapbox. They are using the local Swiss system of popular referendums — which require the signatures of at least 10 percent of registered voters, 2,500 in this case — to  bring the issue before elected officials, since the museum is owned by the town. And they are taking the early, tentative steps required to force the local legislature to put an issue to a vote; if the legislature were to approve, more signatures could be gathered for a communitywide vote.

A referendum is it seems the only legal avenue remaining for Monteagle, as the Swiss Museum claims to have acquired the work by donation in 1986:

The Constable painting, “Dedham From Langham,” a 19th-century landscape of the English countryside, was seized in Nice, France, in 1943, along with all the valuables of Mr. Monteagle’s great-aunt, Anna Jaffé, a childless British expatriate and wealthy Jewish art collector who had died a year earlier. Her French heir, a nephew who was Mr. Monteagle’s grandfather, died in Auschwitz.

The pro-Nazi Vichy government of France organized an auction in Nice, unloading everything from silver sugar pots and tapestries to paintings by Turner and Tenier.

Ultimately, the Constable painting passed among three new owners during the war and was purchased by a Geneva gallery, which sold it in 1946 to René Junod. He was an art collector and Swiss businessman who, with his wife, left a collection of 30 paintings to the museum here in 1986, along with money for renovation and expansion.

Whether Mr. Monteagle’s effort will be successful or not remains to be seen. But his cause may certainly receive a boost from the high-profile article.

  1. Doreen Carvajal, Wooing the Public to Recover Art, The New York Times, March 18, 2014.

An Appreciation for The Train

Burt Lancaster as French Resistance fighter Labiche in The Train
Burt Lancaster as French Resistance fighter Labiche in The Train

As the George Clooney project Monuments Men, based on the work by Robert Edsel, finally nears its release on February 7th, it may be worth revisiting a 1964 masterpiece.

How many men should die to save a work of art? How much money should be devoted to its protection and preservation? The Train forces us to consider our answer. Set in 1944, in the final days of the war, the conflict has all but been decided, and the question raised by the film is not the simple question of whether a Monet or Braque should be worth the sacrifice of human lives, but a more complicated question. Director John Frankenheimer asks the audience to consider how many men and women should die to keep the works in France at the end of a long and deadly struggle. The film weighs the lives against innocents, against enough money to equip “ten panzer divisions”, and against the lives of French resistors. The result is one of the very best anti-war films.

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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.