Nazi-Era Art Collection Appears to Find a Home

New York Times 21 November 2014
By Melissa Eddy

BERLIN — A collection of more than 1,000 artworks obtained by a Nazi-era art dealer and kept private for decades by his son is expected to be accepted by the Kunstmuseum Bern, a small museum in Switzerland, fulfilling the son’s final wish.

The discovery of the collection sent the art world into an uproar, renewing concerns about the fate of Nazi-looted art and the rights of the owners’ descendants more than a half-century after the end of World War II.

The dealer’s son, Cornelius Gurlitt, threw the collection’s fate into uncertainty with his decision to bequeath it to the Kunstmuseum Bern. After more than six months of deliberation, the museum and the German government said Thursday that they would release information about the future of the estate on Monday.

Sources with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said it was likely that the board members would gather in Switzerland on Saturday to decide on Mr. Gurlitt’s gift. Stuart E. Eizenstat, a former deputy Treasury secretary who is now special adviser on Holocaust issues to Secretary of State John Kerry, said Thursday that it was his understanding that the museum would accept the offer.

Mr. Eizenstat, who helped to negotiate the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which entrenched the principle that governments and museums must take responsibility for the damage caused by the Nazi looting of Jewish art, applauded the museum for indicating that every item would be screened by experts to determine which have dubious provenance.

“They’re going to have international art experts go through the collection,” Mr. Eizenstat said. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the museum intended to accept the collection, barring any last-minute legal hurdles.

The Bern museum was stunned to learn after Mr. Gurlitt’s death in May that it had been named the sole inheritor of the hotly disputed collection, which has since been determined to hold at least two works that were looted by the Nazis: a 1921 portrait by Henri Matisse and the Max Liebermann picture “Two Riders on the Beach.”

If the museum does not accept the gift, the collection would fall to several of Mr. Gurlitt’s distant cousins and the husband of his only sister, who died childless in 2012. Although his relatives had agreed to honor his wishes, one of his second cousins recently suggested she would challenge Mr. Gurlitt’s will. As of Thursday, she had not yet filed a petition with the Munich court handling the estate.

Mr. Gurlitt lived a solitary life in a Munich apartment with the windows either papered over or heavily curtained even before the world’s media camped out at his doorstep after a report of the collection’s existence in the German newsmagazine Focus last year.

Art lovers and descendants of Holocaust victims were outraged to learn that more than 1,000 paintings and drawings collected by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, had been in the possession of the German police for more than a year, seized as part of an investigation into possible tax evasion. Many works in the Gurlitt collection were plundered from German museums, but scores were suspected of having belonged to Jewish collectors who were forced to sell them at below-market prices, or had them confiscated as they fled the Nazis.

Under pressure from Israel, the United States and Jewish organizations, Germany set up a special task force to investigate the provenance of the artworks, hundreds of which were listed in the government’s online database in an effort to increase transparency and speed the identification of possible claimants to the works.

Although small, the fine-arts museum in the Swiss capital has its own restoration departments for paintings and sketches, which make up a sizable share of the trove. Many of the works, especially those Mr. Gurlitt had stashed in a home he kept in Salzburg, were for years exposed to fluctuations of temperature and are badly in need of restoration.

Daniel Spanke, the museum’s curator, said that he had confidence in his staff’s ability to cope with the responsibilities involved in accepting the collection.

Mr. Gurlitt reached an agreement with the German authorities shortly before his death, binding his heirs to return any works determined to have been looted or stolen by the Nazis.

One of the paintings, the Liebermann, has been determined to belong to David Toren, an 89-year-old descendant of the Jewish industrialist David Friedmann. Mr. Toren’s attorney said he was confident the Kunstmuseum Bern would accept the collection and was certain that his client would finally receive the painting that he last saw hanging in his great-uncle’s home.

“The museum is incredibly fortunate for having this collection fall into its lap, and this presents a real opportunity for the museum to raise its international profile by doing the right thing with regard to the portion of the collection that was stolen by Nazis,” said August Matteis, who represents Mr. Toren.
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