German Panel Defends Effort to Trace Owners of Nazi-Looted Art

New York Times 2 December 2015
By Melissa Eddy

BERLIN — A German task force set up to determine the provenance of works in the art collection hoarded for decades by Cornelius Gurlitt defended its progress on Wednesday, announcing that it had established that a drawing by Adolph von Menzel had been sold by its Jewish owners in 1938 to help pay for their escape from the Nazis.

The drawing, “Church in Hofgastein,” is the fifth in the collection of about 1,200 paintings and drawings to have its history established in the two years since the group of experts was convened. The group was created under intense international pressure and charges that the German authorities had failed to handle the Gurlitt trove with necessary sensitivity.

Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, who heads the task force, said Wednesday that the panel had made strides, but also emphasized the difficulties the experts faced given the many legal struggles associated with the collection since it was first discovered in March 2012.

The information on the Menzel drawing’s history comes just weeks before the task force is scheduled to issue its final report and be dissolved. The group has been accused of failing in its mission to provide swift answers through a transparent process.

“The work of the Gurlitt task force has been shrouded in secrecy, which is no way to conduct meaningful restitution research,” said Gregory Schneider, executive vice president of the Jewish Claims Conference, which appointed two researchers to the panel of experts. “It has been two years since the revelation of this art trove and virtually nothing has been revealed.”

Monika Grütters, the German culture minister, has pledged that the effort to clarify the histories of the 590 works in the Gurlitt collection will continue under the German Lost Art Foundation. The institution was established this year with an annual budget of at least 4 million euros, or $4.2 million.

Ms. Grütters told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that the experts on the task force would be invited to continue under the auspices of the Lost Art Foundation.

But Ms. Berggreen-Merkel warned that despite the continued efforts, “There will be many works whose provenance will not be able to be definitively determined.”

The existence of the collection, amassed by Mr. Gurlitt’s father during World War II, was kept secret by the Bavarian authorities for more than a year before it was revealed by a German newsmagazine. Mr. Gurlitt, who died at age 81 in May 2014, left the collection to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland. A cousin of Mr. Gurlitt’s has challenged the will, and the collection remains in legal limbo pending a ruling by a court in Munich.

Before his death, Mr. Gurlitt bound his inheritors to return to their rightful owners any works determined to have been looted by the Nazis or sold under duress.

The Menzel drawing had belonged to Albert Martin Wolffson, a well-known Jewish collector in Hamburg, the task force said in a statement. Mr. Wolffson bequeathed it to his daughter Elsa Cohen, and it was later sold to Mr. Gurlitt’s father for a price below market rates at the time, the statement said.

“It can be assumed that the sale was due to the persecution of the prominent family and served to pay for them to leave for the United States of America,” the statement said, adding that it was not clear whether Mrs. Cohen ever received the proceeds of the sale. Mrs. Cohen’s son fled with his family in January 1939 and she followed in August 1941.

No claim had been submitted for the drawing, the statement said, and no further information regarding how it would deal with the work was provided.

In May, a painting by Matisse, “Seated Woman,” was returned to the family of Paul Rosenberg, who was one of the world’s leading dealers in modern art. Another work, “Two Riders on the Beach,” by Max Liebermann, was returned this year, to the great-nephew of its owner, David Friedmann, and put up for auction in June, where it was sold for $2.9 million.
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