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Gurlitt art find

Annika Zeitler / gswOctober 24, 2014

The discovery of the valuable trove held by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer, unleashed a debate one year ago about returning works once stolen by Nazis. Many questions remain open, and a debate continues.

An art expert holds a list of works' values
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Just where the art works are stored is being kept secret, and their future still remains uncertain. They are, however, in a safe location and have even been partly restored, says Stephan Brock, the executor of the Cornelius Gurlitt estate, which includes hundreds of modern art paintings Gurlitt and his father amassed.

"The art is being made beautiful once more, so that we will all benefit once it is - hopefully soon - exhibited again," Brock said, making reference to an upcoming decision by the Museum of Fine Arts Bern as to whether it will assume ownership of the art trove Gurlitt bequeathed to it before his death in May 2014. "I don't think the museum will reject it," Brock added.

The Swiss institution has until December 7 to make its decision, Brock says. Currently, the art museum is in private negotiations with officials from Germany's federal government and from the state of Bavaria, where Gurlitt lived.

"The talks are proceeding in a constructive fashion, but they have not yet concluded," museum representatives have said.

Reviving provenance research in Germany

Chagall, Monet, Renoir and Picasso - who wouldn't like to include works by these artists in a museum collection or even at home in the living room? But the real question is: To whom do these pictures actually belong after sitting for years in Cornelius Gurlitt's Munich apartment and his house in Salzburg? His father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was one of four prominent art dealers during the Nazi era who bought up and confiscated works from museums and also from private collectors throughout Europe and in occupied zones. The intent at the time was to stock up for a planned museum in honor of Adolf Hitler.

An exterior view of Gurlitt's home in Salzburg
Gurlitt's modest Salzburg home housed works believed to be worth millionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Gurlitt art case has lent a sudden and unexpected degree of interest to questions about provenance research and the origins of the pictures involved. Which works were stolen under the Nazis and must be given back?

This issue has assumed central importance at the Kunsthalle Bremen. The art museum located in Bremen, Germany, began combing through its collection three years before the spectacular Gurlitt find in Munich. The museum's goal has been to identify works stolen by the Nazis - making it a pioneer concerning transparency. Other German museums - such as the state art museum in Baden-Württemberg or Hamburg's Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Museum of Art and Industry) - are setting a good example by examining the history of their works procured from 1933 to 1945.

However, museums lack the money and personnel to thoroughly settle questions about works' history, said their representatives after the public debate about returning art looted by Nazis unfolded about a year ago.

New center to investigate stolen art

"No museum can still say it doesn't have the personnel to research whether its collection includes art stolen by the Nazis," commented Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen, secretary general with the Cultural Foundation of the German states, which assists in the procurement of new art works. The federal government reacted to the criticisms made both at home and abroad, raising the funds available for researching the provenance of artworks in Germany from 4 million euros ($5.07 million) to 6 million euros.

On January 1, 2015, a newly founded German Center for the Loss of Cultural Goods will open in the city of Magdeburg, where it will increase and combine efforts to find once stolen works among the holdings in museums, archives and libraries. Would such a development have come about without the discovery of Gurlitt's trove? Pfeiffer-Poensgen admits that it's unlikely it would have happened so quickly, adding that it takes something spectacular for things to change.

Max Liebermann's "Zwei Reiter am Strand"
The Max Liebermann painting "Two Riders at the Beach" was judged to have been stolen by the NazisImage: gemeinfrei

Thinking ahead

Christian Fuhrmeister of Munich's Central Institute for Art History views partnerships with universities as a good way of uncovering looted works in existing collections, saying, "We have to use the motor of the next generation and give young students the tools to be able to work successfully in the area of provenance research in the future." Fuhrmeister claims that there are currently just around 200 people in the German-speaking world who are up to such tasks. That leaves much work to do.

When it comes to the lingering questions in the Gurlitt case, the task force charged with finding answers is the Schwabinger Kunstfund (Schwabing Art Fund) under director Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel. The group's report to the press thus far has been sparing: "The task force is at work," it says, but little further information has been made public.

The team of experts has so far been able to identify two paintings as stolen: Henri Matisse's "Sitting Woman" and "Two Riders at the Beach" by Max Liebermann. Critics say that's not enough, and those who are claiming ownership of works once held by Gurlitt claim the "closed system" task force is difficult and should provide more transparency.

Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel
Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel heads the task force investigating Gurlitt's artImage: DW/H. Mund

Eight suspects

"Ms. Berggreen-Merkel's team is under pressure, examining everything closely and wants to do its work properly," says Gurlitt estate executor Stephan Brock.

Recently, a Monet painting was found in one of the suitcases that Gurlitt had with him in the hospital prior to his death. The task force confirmed on October 20 that the picture is Monet's "Evening Landscape," and the painting has since been included in the online database of lost art.

In total, eight works from Gurlitt's collection are under suspicion of having been stolen by Nazis. One of Gurlitt's lawyers confirmed that shortly after his client's death, and Stephan Brock has also vouched for the information. When families could reclaim their works by Matisse or Liebermann remains an open question until the art's legal status is cleared up.

In May 2014, Cornelius Gurlitt had signed a contract with the federal government and the state of Bavaria to return all of the works stolen by Nazis to their rightful owners. Regardless of whether the art museum in Bern or Gurlitt's relatives assume ownership of the valuable works, that contract remains binding, Bavarian justice officials have stated.