Gurlitt collection goes to Bern - but then what?

Deutsche Welle 28 November 2014
By Stefan Dege

The Museum of Fine Arts Bern is the sole beneficiary of Cornelius Gurlitt's will, despite a report that he was mentally ill when writing it. The collection contains Nazi-looted art. So what will the museum do with it?

"We work under the observation of the global public," the president of the board of the Museum of Fine Arts Bern, Christoph Schäublin, told the "Zürcher Tagesanzeiger." He added, "We cannot afford to make any mistakes."

Of course no one wants to make any mistakes, especially when it has to do with artworks that may have been acquired unethically. That means the response to the press is rather tight-lipped these days and the atmosphere at the Bern museum is rather tense.

It seems that no one wants to appear to benefit from the controversial Gurlitt case, which has drawn attention from all over the world. According to the will of the art collector, who passed away in May, the valuable trove that hit headlines in November 2013 goes to the Bern museum.

Claude Monet's 'Waterloo Bridge in Mist' is a valuable part of the Gurlitt collection

However, the paintings that are suspected to have been misappropriated by the Nazis during World War II are to stay in Germany. It's the German taxpayers that will foot the bill for the provenance research.

"Bern die Lust, Berlin die Last" (Bern the pleasure, Berlin the burden) is how Dutch newspaper "De Volkskrant" described the Gurlitt deal. Meanwhile, Germany's Culture Minister Monika Grütters explained to journalists in Berlin that "this has to do with Germany's special obligation toward the victims of the Nazi regime."

'A very good deal'

Voices in Switzerland have also started to insist that Switzerland bears a certain responsibility as well. The tiny non-EU country in the middle of Europe used to be a hub for the stolen art market. Along with Germany, Switzerland is now one of the 43 countries which signed the Washington Conference Principles in 1998. The signatories commit to search for Nazi-looted art among their museums and to return the items that are found to their rightful owners.

"Ninety percent of the museums here have not done their homework," Swiss historian Thomas Buomberger told the "Berner Zeitung." He added that the Museum of Fine Arts Bern had "made a very good deal."

Although museum director Matthias Frehner says he does not find the Gurlitt collection particularly significant from an artistic perspective, it does contain some valuable examples of Classical Modern art.

Matthias Frehner is cautious about the significance of the Gurlitt collection

"We can take two sets of works whose provenance has been confirmed," said Frehner in an interview with DW. One of those sets mainly includes works on paper from the Classical Modern period.

According to Frehner, two particular gems in the collection are Paul Cézanne's 1847 "Montagne Sainte-Victoire" landscape and Claude Monet's "Waterloo Bridge in Mist" from 1903. Paintings by Paul Signac, Courbet and Gauguin are also noteworthy.

Many works undocumented

The second set contains approximately 280 works which had been collected by Cornelius Gurlitt's relatives. Both sets would fit "very nicely" in the collection of the Berlin museum, which focuses on Classical Modern artworks and paintings from the 19th century, said Frehner. The museum is planning an exhibition of "degenerate art" - that deemed culturally unworthy by the Nazis - for next year.

To clarify the provenance and value of the artworks, the Museum of Fine Arts Bern is to set up its own research team. An anonymous patron has already donated "a seven-digit sum" designated to finance the provenance research.

"The Gurlitt collection is very large and many of the works are undocumented," explained Frehner. "We will work together with the German task force and help contribute to the research of the collection's history," promised Frehner.
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