Cornelius Gurlitt's overlooked heirs want control of his Nazi-era 'degenerate art' estate

Deutsche Welle 24 November 2014
By Stefan Dege

The fight for Cornelius Gurlitt's infamous, Nazi-era art trove has escalated - and this just before the key players in the drama are set for a press conference meant to 'clarify' things.

For weeks, those involved adhered to a code of silence. Then things escalated.

The cousin of Cornelius Gurlitt - Uta Werner - announced via her spokesperson on Friday (21.11.2014) that she, "with the support of her children, as well as the individual sons and grandchildren in the heredity line of Gurlitt's cousin, Dietrich," had submitted a certificate of inheritance to a Munich probate court on the treasure trove of stashed artworks made public earlier this year.

As justification for the claim, Werner's statement cited the opinion of lawyer/psychiatrist Helmut Hausner, who "seriously questioned" the testamentary capacity of Cornelius Gurlitt; instances of testamentary incapability provide a legal opportunity to file retroactive injunctions decades after a decision.

"This is, for everyone concerned, associated with long-term uncertainty," reads Uta Werner's statement, "that neither serves the purpose nor is commensurate to the dignity" demanded by such an inheritance.

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With the inheritance application on its desk, the Munich district court must now - in view of testamentary doubts - check the validity of the will on its own.

Gurlitt's trove was discovered by German authorities in late 2012

In an interview with DW, lawyer/psychologist Hausner said the first-round appraisal of Cornelius Gurlitt's mental health came at the request of Uta Werner via her Munich lawyer, Wolfgang Seybold. Her family, Hausner told DW, wanted to be prepared in the event that the Swiss museum to which Gurlitt bequeathed his artistic fortune renounced his offer.

Gurlitt, who died in May, bequeathed his collection to the The Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland. The collection comprises hundreds of works that were stored in his apartment in Munich's Schwabing district and his home in Salzburg, Austria.

Some of those works may have been the result of Nazi-era looting. Gurlitt's father, Hildebrand, was one of Adolf Hitler's art dealers. This explains why the fate of the Gurlitt legacy has become, above all, a political issue.

Enter Monika Grütters

Helmut Hausner

Should the Munich probate court also reach the conclusion that Gurlitt's will is invalid, the art treasure would fall to his legal heirs: cousins Uta Werner and Dietrich Gurlitt.

Cousin Dietrich had previously distanced himself from Hausner's medical-legal opinion on Cornelius Gurlitt.

Uta Werner, via a lawyer, has said she would, as legal heir, return the entire collection of stolen art to its Jewish owners and their heirs. Both Dietrich Gurlitt and Uta Werner have Jewish roots.

According to lawyer Wolfgang Seybold: "The family hopes the collection of classical modernism, which was saved by Hildebrand Gurlitt from the [Nazi] 'degenerate art' operation, stays together and goes on long-term display at a German museum."

German media reports suggest Uta Werner's family has been greatly annoyed by Germany's culture minister, Monika Grütters, who views the original Bern testament as a "godsend" - and one that has "wounded" the Gurlitt family.

The family is also said to be dissatisfied with the task force carrying out its research on the origins of the art. They say provenance researchers are being required to deliver "more and faster" results.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Bern - will they get the collection?

Meanwhile, German news agency dpa says it has learned that The Museum of Fine Arts Bern does intend to take possession of the Gurlitt inheritance if given the chance. The museum's board of trustees, which has yet to adopt a final decision, declined to comment on the issue; so, too, did Germany's federal culture minister.

All that is known with certainty is that Monday, all parties involved will speak publicly about the inheritance in Berlin. Only then will the legacy of the infamous art trove be clarified.
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