Court-Solicited Opinion Reportedly Concludes that Gurlitt was Competent to Make Will

Art Law Report 22 December 2015
By Nicholas O'Donnell

On the heels of the most recent restitution recommendation, there is more Gurlitt news.  In October we discussed news that a Munich court had requested an expert opinion from a psychologist about whether Cornelius Gurlitt was competent to make the 2014 will that named the Kunstmuseum Bern as his sole heir—in particular to the roughly 1,400 works of art in his possession in Munich and Salzburg under suspicion of Nazi looting connections—to the exclusion of his relatives.  Procedurally, the court is considering the appeal by Gurlitt’s relatives of the denial by a lower court of their will contest.

There have been reports this week that the psychological opinion is complete, though it has not been released.  Both Der Spiegel (in German) and the New York Times reported that a spokesman for Uta Werner (the Gurlitt cousin challenging the will) confirmed that the parties had received the opinion and that it found “despite ‘severe psychological ailments in the days directly before and after drawing up the will,’ Mr. Gurlitt was not impaired” such that he could not make legal decisions.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung dug a little deeper into the disclosure of the report.  SZ noted that the story first broke last Thursday when the Tagesspiegel quoted German Minister of Culture Monika Grütters as follows (my translation):

If the expert opinion confirms Mr. Gurlitt’s testamentary capacity for his inheritance, it would be above all a great relief for the victims of Nazi-looting, because information, provenance research, and above all the restitution of questionable works could be much less complicated and quicker.  I hope, that then works can be made accessible to the public.

Werner’s attorneys took issue with this as reported by SZ, most critically their “astonishment” that Grütters already knew the content of the report and publicized it outside the proceedings.  This is a very interesting point.  Any foreknowledge of the opinion before it was filed or released would undermine its independence, probably fatally.  Given the Ministry of Culture’s strong preference for public relations over substance in the Gurlitt case, it is worth watching how the Werner camp responds.

Grütters quote is, on its own, hard to take seriously given how hamstrung the effort to clarify the collection’s provenance have been.  It is also self-evidently ridiculous: the will contest is not the reason the works were not made public, the Bavarian and federal governments’ ham-handed approach is.  And, the ministry has been quite content to make claimants and heirs wait so far.

The other important point in the SZ article is that despite how the story is largely being reported, Gurlitt has not been found competent (or incompetent).  The court is still considering that question, which will obviously be informed by this report, but also by the challengers’ response.

This may indeed determine the outcome, but the pronouncements that the will outcome is over are, at least for now, premature.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024