Munich Court Requests Psychological Opinion Concerning Gurlitt’s Competence to Make Will

Art Law Report 14 July 2015
By Nicholas O'Donnell

Even as we creep up on the anniversary of the theatrical announcement of an agreement between Bavaria, Germany, and the Kunstmuseum Bern concerning the bequest of Cornelius Gurlitt, the court challenge by Gurlitt’s family is by no means over. News came this week that the Munich court overseeing the appeal of the initial denial of the will challenge has requested an expert opinion concerning Gurlitt’s psychological state.

When Gurlitt died in 2014, he named the Swiss museum both as the recipient of his substantial art collection, as well as his legal heir. The 2014 agreement was targeted at resolving the question about which works were looted by the Nazis, a question that has now been on the Bavarian authorities’ plate for more than three years. Whether under the auspices of the Task Force as originally constituted, or pursuant to the 2014 agreement, only four work’s provenance have been resolved, and only two have been returned.

The will challenge will not affect those four cases; the Gurlitt family disclaimed any claim to those looted works. But clearly the whole notion of the Bern bequest and the city and museum’s plans for a substantial influx of major works of art—even if many of the works currently in the authorities’ works were eventually to be returned to victims and/or heirs—cannot proceed while the meaningful chance exists that the entirety of the collection may never even get there.

Since the will contest was filed, I have viewed it as a serious effort. Gurlitt was a man who was suddenly thrust on the world stage and, given his public behavior at least, was totally unprepared for it. Many of his statements and reaction raise at the very least a reasonable question about whether he was in touch with what was really going on (about which the claimants previously submitted their own expert opinion). If he was not, then his impromptu decision to disinherit his relatives in favor of a museum with which he had no connection whatsoever raises some eyebrows.

The will contest was dismissed in the first instance relatively summarily by the Amtsgericht. The family appealed to the Oberlandesgericht in Munich. This week, that court retained an independent psychologist to address Gurlitt’s testamentary capacity.

The report is not expected until at least October, with no clear time table for the court’s reaction to it after that. Given reports about the financial strain that the uncertainty has caused the Bern museum, this development will no doubt exacerbate them.
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