Collector’s Cousin Makes Last-Minute Claim to Nazi-Tainted Art Trove

Wall Street Journal 21 November 2014
By Andrea Thomas

Challenge Filed to Cornelius Gurlitt’s Will Just Days Before Swiss Museum’s Expected Acceptance of Priceless and Controversial Collection

The Kunstmuseum Bern will announce Monday whether it will accept a German recluse's bequest of a spectacular trove art works, but a challenge from his cousin may complicate the move.

A cousin of Cornelius Gurlitt has laid claim to the late collector’s Nazi-tainted art trove in a move that could spark a legal dispute with the Swiss museum Mr. Gurlitt designated as his sole heir shortly before his death in May.

Uta Werner, Mr. Gurlitt’s cousin, has applied to the Munich Probate Court for an certificate of inheritance for the collector’s estate, her spokesman Thomas Pfaff said. The development comes just days before the Kunstmuseum Bern is scheduled to announce whether it would accept Mr. Gurlitt’s inheritance.

Mr. Pfaff said in the statement Ms. Werner’s decision was motivated by a recent psychological report that expressed serious doubts about Mr.’s Gurlitt’s mental capacity as he drew up his will.

Her decision was supported by her children and by close relatives of another cousin of Mr. Gurlitt, Dietrich Gurlitt, according to Mr. Pfaff.

The Swiss museum, which The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday is expected to accept Mr. Gurlitt’s estate, will announce its decision at a press conference scheduled for Monday in Berlin.

A positive decision would end a period of legal limbo for a collection rooted in the Nazi era whose fate has gripped the nation for more than a year. The museum’s anticipated move was expected to hasten restitution for the heirs of Holocaust victims with claims to looted works in Mr. Gurlitt’s collection.

But Ms. Werner’s decision means that uncertainty may continue over the long-hidden collection, which includes masterpieces by Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The Munich court must now decide whether there is reasonable doubt that would justify a reexamination of the will’s validity. The court wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Ms. Werner and the other family members will stick to their promise of an “unconditional return of looted art” and will help determine the artworks’ origins, Mr. Pfaff said.

Mr. Gurlitt, the octogenarian son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of Adolf Hitler ’s principal art dealers, died in early May in his Munich apartment after a protracted battle with heart disease. Government officials confiscated his collection in early 2012 as part of a tax investigation. Historians and lawyers have already concluded the trove contains several pieces stolen from European Jews by the Nazis.

The art trove was amassed during and shortly after World War II by Mr. Gurlitt’s father, a museum director turned art dealer for Hitler.

Mary M. Lane contributed to this article.
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