A museum in the Swiss capital agreed to accept an art trove bequeathed to it this year by German collector Cornelius Gurlitt, and vowed to return any works in the hoard stolen by the Nazis.
Kunstmuseum Bern said today it will take the legally acquired art Gurlitt left it, and work with the German government to return works that belonged to Jews before World War II and were confiscated by the regime.
“The decision was anything but easy and involved in no way a sense of triumphalism,” Christoph Schaeublin, president of the Bern museum’s foundation, told reporters in Berlin. “I’m convinced that we achieved the best solution possible,” while confronting a “multifaceted and complex responsibility” with respect to victims of the Nazis.
The discovery of the more than 1,400 modernist works in a 2012 raid by tax authorities at Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich unearthed prints, paintings and sketches long given up as lost or destroyed under Adolf Hitler’s rule. Gurlitt inherited the collection with an estimated value of more than 1 billion euros ($1.24 billion), including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin, from his father Hildebrand, one of four dealers authorized by the Nazis to sell confiscated art abroad.
In February, an additional 60 pieces were found in Gurlitt’s house in Salzburg, Austria.
A task force set up by the German federal government and the state of Bavaria, which includes international art experts, is investigating the provenance of 976 works from the trove, said Monika Gruetters, Germany’s culture minister. The rest of the collection is thought to have been acquired legally.
Of the questionable art, 499 works may have been stolen from their owners by Nazi officials, according to Gruetters. Germany will assume the legal costs of the restitution process and all such works will remain in German hands until their provenance can be ascertained.
“Given our particular responsibility as Germans regarding the victims of the Nazi regime, we wanted to make sure that the agreement was not only legally but also morally correct,” Gruetters said today. “Therefore, all inherited works proven to be looted art will be returned to their rightful owners without any ifs, ands or buts.”
The team announced in June that a 1921Matisse painting, “Woman Sitting in an Armchair,” was looted from the collection of art dealer Paul Rosenberg.
“The Rosenberg family is looking forward to the expeditious return of the Matisse, and all the looted art to their rightful owners,” said Chris Marinello, who represents the Rosenbergs. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned in the year that it has taken to get us to this point, and I certainly would not be surprised if this was not the last Cornelius Gurlitt-type case that we see.”
Another painting, Max Liebermann’s 1901 “Two Riders on the Beach,” had also been seized by the Nazis, the task force said in August. David Toren, a retired New York lawyer, sued Germany in a U.S. court in March for the return of the Liebermann painting, claiming it was taken from his great uncle.
Toren will drop his legal case once he has secured the painting, according to his lawyer August Matteis.
“In our lawsuit we’d asked for the painting and a list of other artworks that were in the collection to determine whether Mr. Toren was the rightful owner of any others,” Matteis said by telephone from Washington, D.C. “It sounds like all this is going to come to fruition very quickly.”
Gruetters announced today that the task force has determined that a third work -- a drawing from Carl Spitzweg dating from around 1840 titled “Playing the Piano” -- is also looted art.
Another 477 works are identified as possibly being art seized by the Nazis and scorned as “degenerate.” Such works were removed from circulation in the 1930s and 1940s and taken primarily from museums as part of a campaign to ban modernist and abstract art. These works will be taken by the Bern museum, with loan requests from the German museums where they were seized being given first priority.
Cornelius Gurlitt died in May at the age of 81 in his Munich apartment where most of the works were discovered. The reclusive art owner lived alone and struggled to grasp the media scrutiny after Germany’s Focus magazine published a November 2013 article exposing the trove.
Isolated from the outside world, Gurlitt stopped watching television in 1963, booked hotel rooms months in advance by mail when he had to travel, and never used the Internet, according to magazine Der Spiegel. His collection was discovered in the raid by tax authorities, who became suspicious when he was found carrying 9,000 euros during a random search at the Swiss border in 2010. He was returning from a visit to Bern to sell some artwork.
“I welcome the decision,” Stephan Holzinger, Gurlitt’s former spokesman, said in a statement. Holzinger criticized the “dishonorable disruptive actions” of relatives and said the task force is working at a “disturbingly slow pace.”
Uta Werner, an 86-year-old cousin of Gurlitt, filed a challenge to his testament last week, citing an assessment that claimed the deceased recluse wasn’t sufficiently mentally sound to conclude a legally binding will, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported, citing a spokesman for Werner.
Hitler’s regime seized hundreds of thousands of artworks from Jewish collectors. Though classified by the Nazis as “second-degree, mixed-race Jewish,” Hildebrand Gurlitt was permitted to sell what the German dictator called “degenerate art” abroad to raise foreign currency.
Kunstmuseum Bern is the oldest art museum in Switzerland with a permanent collection, and houses works covering eight centuries, according to its website.