German Court Upholds Bequest of Gurlitt Collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern

New York Times 27 March 2015
By Christopher D. Shea

A Munich court has struck down a legal challenge by a cousin of Cornelius Gurlitt who claimed that she should inherit works from his vast art collection. Mr. Gurlitt had bequeathed the works to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland, and the court ruled that they rightfully belong there.

Mr. Gurlitt, who died at the age of 81 in May, lived a reclusive life in a Munich apartment in which he stored well over 1,000 artworks that his father had amassed during World War II, when Hitler commissioned him to buy art for a museum that he had planned. The collection includes works by Gauguin, Renoir, Monet and Cézanne.

The trove was discovered in 2012, when tax officers searched Mr. Gurlitt’s house as part of a routine tax investigation. The German government had kept the discovery a secret, but a German journalist learned of the investigation in late 2013.

The Kunstmuseum Bern signed an agreement accepting the works from the state of Bavaria in November. The museum was preparing to accept the trove when a lawsuit by Uta Werner, a cousin of Mr. Gurlitt, blocked their transfer that same month.

The museum has set up a task force to investigate which of the works might have been looted from Jewish families.  It has already identified several such pieces, including one by Matisse, and the museum plans to return them to the families of the original owners.

In a statement in German released on its website on Thursday, the Munich court said:  “The decision finds Cornelius Gurlitt’s will, in which he names the Kunstmuseum Bern as sole heir, valid. The decision dismisses the claim made by his cousin that the testator Cornelius Gurlitt was incapable of making a will at the time of signing.”

Ms. Werner has one month to decide whether to appeal to a higher court.

Thomas Pfaff, a spokesman for Ms. Werner, said in an emailed statement that her lawyers would “closely review the reasons for the decision, after which Ms. Werner will decide how to proceed.”
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