Art hoard: ′Honor rights of claimants and owner′ | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.04.2014
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Art hoard: 'Honor rights of claimants and owner'

A task force on the "Schwabing art trove" has announced agreement on a hoard of works suspected to have been looted by Nazis. DW spoke with lawyer Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, who leads the taskforce.

Government representatives and lawyers for art collector Cornelius Gurlitt came to an agreement on Monday (07.04.2014) about how to proceed with works from the so-called Schwabing art trove, consisting of nearly 1,300 modern masterpieces seized from Gurlitt's apartment in the Munich suburb of Schwabing by the authorities in November last year.

Gurlitt essentially declared his readiness to allow the state prosecutor to assess the origin of the works, using the expertise of a task force which has been set up to investigate the works. Gurlitt will be allowed to select an expert of his choice for the team to ensure his interests are represented.

A statement on the agreement also stated that any works for which the state has not completed its research into their provenance after one year will be returned to Gurlitt.

The German government and the state of Bavaria have assembled an international team of experts from the fields of art history, provenance research and law, under the direction of Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel. DW spoke with her.

DW: There had been signs of a potential agreement in the Gurlitt case, but that it's come so soon has been surprising. How difficult was it to reach this agreement?

Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel: One talks about the topics and one talks to each other - that's the normal process in which both sides are involved. I am very happy with what we have achieved.

What were the sticking points on Gurlitt's side?

There were no sticking points in that sense. In this agreement, one had to always consider Mr. Gurlitt's actual existing rights, as well as on the other hand keeping in mind expectations particularly from abroad with regard to this trove.

This agreement has by no means closed the Gurlitt case. So has the taskforce's work really just begun?

The taskforce has been working all along. Much background research has already been completed. I'm confident that in the coming months, a very large part of the artworks will be reviewed in this way.

The trove includes more than 1,200 artworks. Now the taskforce has to examine all the works within one year.

One has to put the numbers in proportion. You have to subtract those works which have nothing to do with the topic, and are rather works that clearly were and are part of Mr. Gurlitt's collection. Then you also have to take out those works suspected of having been stolen art. We'll focus on those, and research them further.

The subject of "degenerate art" will become secondary at that point. The most important thing with regard to the Holocaust survivors and their heirs is to prioritize and quickly assess those works possibly suspected of having been extorted and seized from people under harrowing conditions.

The number of around 500 works has been floated as potential Nazi-looted art. Can you confirm that?

A negative list was compiled. There were about 500 artworks where it could not be ruled out that they could be looted art. That is a difference.

Hans Christoph's Couple

A watercolor by Hans Christoph, 1924, that was among the works in Gurlitt's collection

So are these works that you'll focus on first?

Those are the pictures upon which we are now focussing.

To fully establish the origin of 500 paintings in one year, is that realistic?

We've set our sights on completing most of the work in that time frame. But of course we've also said that assessment must continue in the case of artworks that have pending claims, or which our experts strongly suspect could be looted art.

The agreement states that Cornelius Gurlitt may post at least one expert to the taskforce. Does that mean he could also appoint more?

He can put in at least one. But I don't want to allow the taskforce to get too big. We're already 14 people, and so we've said based on that, we can only have one more. But it does remain open, and we can continue to consider this in the ongoing process.

There's great international interest in progress on the Gurlitt case. Have you sensed any sort of pressure from abroad?

I have not sensed any pressure from abroad, although I have sensed great interest from abroad. I've spoken with many people, including special representatives and envoys for issues relating to the Holocaust from the United Kingdom, the United States and especially from Israel. These people have of course expressed to me the great interest and hope, especially internationally, in locating artworks believed to have gone missing. We're taking that into account, and we do feel responsible to them.

Yet, as I've always said, we also feel responsible to honor Mr. Gurlitt's rights. I believe that the agreement we've come to now brings together quite well Mr. Gurlitt's rights on the one hand with the international expectations on the other.

Due to great public and international interest, many will be observing the taskforce's progress. What degree of transparency is the taskforce ensuring, and how?

We work in a secure chatroom with virtual pictures, because we can't constantly be handling the originals. Until now, we've been planning to report findings on paintings to the public prosecutor's office - as long as we're working for the public prosecutor, that's the only way. Were the seizure to be lifted and we be allowed to further view the paintings with Mr. Gurlitt's consent, we would communicate findings to those involved, in other words, both the claimants and Mr. Gurlitt.

Will this be done painting by painting, or will you bundle the effort?

I believe we will do it painting by painting.

Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel worked for the Bavarian ministry of education and culture from 1972 to 2008. Since then, she's worked in Berlin for the federal ministry of culture. She was appointed to the Schwabing art trove taskforce in 2013.

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