Gurlitt Bequest to Kunstmuseum Bern is Upheld, Little Else Resolved

Art Law Report 30 March 2015
By Nicholas O'Donnell

A Munich court ruled last week that the will written by Cornelius Gurlitt in the last days of his life that named the Kunstmuseum Bern (an institution with which he had no relationship whatsoever) was valid, rejecting a challenge by Gurlitt’s cousin Uta Werner.  It is emblematic of the strange case of Gurlitt and of German’s bizarre handling of the affair, that this decision resolves very few of the pending issues.

Werner had challenged the will as invalid, arguing that the Gurlitt’s condition at the time made his disposition not of his own free will.  This hardly seemed a strained contention; Gurlitt, a reclusive man in his 80s was suddenly thrust into the worldwide spotlight when a Focus magazine in November, 2013 article revealed that more than 1,200 works of art with suspected ties to Nazi looting via his father Hildebrand had been removed from his Munich apartment in 2012.  The suggestion that the circumstances overwhelmed him certainly seemed plausible, particularly given the seemingly random choice of an heir.

Nonetheless, the Munich court upheld the will, making the Bern museum the sole heir to Gurlitt in all respects, including not only the trove found in Munich but some 200 (arguably more significant) works found in his Salzburg, Austria home.

So does this reset the clock to November’s Potemkin Village of an agreement between Germany, Bavaria, and the Kunstmuseum Bern?  Hardly.  For starters, ever week that goes by raises more questions about what, exactly the Gurlitt Task Force that was charged one year ago with reviewing the entire collection for Nazi-looting problems, has done.  The Task Force has identified a mere three objects publicly for restitution in that time: Two Riders on the Beach by Max Liebermann, Seated Woman by Henri Matisse, and a drawing by Carl Spitzweg.  While the pendency of the will challenge might plausibly have been the reason that none have yet been returned, that is clearly not the reason.  David Toren has sued in America for the Liebermann, and has said publicly that he does not know why the painting has not been retuned.  The Rosenberg family, heirs to Paul Rosenberg from whom the Matisse was stolen, had to witness the odd spectacle of the Swiss museum making unfounded accusations at their attorney over the particularly of requests for information.  And Martha Hinrichsen must still wait for her grandfather Henri Hinrichsen’s drawing.  Incidentally, Toren is almost 90 years old, having survived the circumstances that led to the murder of his uncle David Friedmann in Breslau, where the painting was looted.

Last week, somewhat hopefully, it was reported that the German Minister of Culture Monika Grütters had signed off on the immediate restitution of the Matisse and the Liebermann.  Once certainly hopes this is the case.  but what is happening or has happened?  It could be that the Task Force intends to make its conclusions known in one fell swoop.  But they are not saying that, nor is the German government.  And the German bureaucracy’s credibility in such matters is almost beyond repair, while fellow travelers are defending sales under duress as maybe not so bad.  Last week’s Seuddeutsche Zeitung had a terrific piece (in German) along these lines by authors Jörg Häntzschel and Catrin Lorch.  All of this is made even stranger by the recent prospect of the so-called “Conny Leaks”—a collection of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s sales records and papers apparently recovered from Cornelius’s home(s), now possibly in the possession of his attorneys.  The SZ piece contends that the Task Force has not even seen (or possibly even asked to see) these papers, begging the question of how thorough its investigation could be.

Let’s hope the Matisse, Spitzweg, and Liebermann are returned soon.  It’s hard to see much other reason for optimism in the short term.  Werner has one month to appeal the determination about Gurlitt’s will.
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