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How Germany has dealt with Nazi-looted art after Gurlitt

Stefan Dege / kbm
January 14, 2016

Many Nazi-looted artworks were suspected among the Gurlitt art collection, the most significant discovery of its kind. So why did provenience researchers only resolve five cases before wrapping up their mandate?

Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on the Beach"
Image: gemeinfrei

Some 1,500 valuable works of art had been kept in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father Hildebrand Gurlitt had been Hitler's own art dealer. German authorities confiscated the multi-million-euro collection and kept it under wraps.

It wasn't until months later, in November 2013, that German magazine "Focus" reported on the find, shocking the art world. Even now, the Gurlitt case continues to occupy the heirs to the artworks, art collectors, lawyers, politicians and journalists worldwide.

Nevertheless, Germany's Culture Minister Monika Grütters put an end to the issue on Thursday (14.01.2016) in Berlin, where she presented the final report of the "Task Force." Commissioned by the federal government and the state of Bavaria, it spent 25 months researching the proveniance of the Gurlitt collection in search of Nazi-looted works of art.

Grütters has meanwhile established a new German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg. With a budget of six million euros ($6.5 million), it is designed to pick up where the Task Force left off.

Culture Minister Monika Grütters, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache
Culture Minister Monika GrüttersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

Just one percent of the cases solved

Which of the works in the Gurlitt collection had belonged to Jewish owners and were unethically obtained by the Nazis? The initial approach of the Bavarian authorities - in particular, its reticence - left the impression that Germany has little interest in resolving cases of looted art.

Then, Berlin did show interest by commissioning the Task Force, whose very name suggests competence and clout.

But the Task Force, led by art historian Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, generated more questions than answers - and resolved only one percent of the provenience cases at stake.

Only five of the 499 artworks in question were proven to have been looted by the Nazis. Four have been returned to their rightful heirs, including Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on a Beach" and Henri Matisse's "Seated Woman."

David Toren, who now lives in New York City, was one of the heirs to have his works restituted. Toren is the great-nephew of Jewish businessman David Friedmann, who had purchased Liebermann's "Two Riders" in 1905 and owned it until it was confiscated by the Nazis. Toren finally received the work 70 years after the end of World War II.

David Toren, Copyright: DW
Art heir David TorenImage: DW/S. Czimmek

"Seated Woman" went back to Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg last May.

Provenience research behind closed doors

The Task Force went about its work very quietly, with very little information made public. Why were they so secretive? Task Force chief Berggreen-Merkel recently explained to the parliamenary Culture Committee that her team had dealt with the property rights of private individuals, which is not always compatible with the "understandable desire for publicity."

Nevertheless, Cornelius Gurlitt's collection was published online even before his death in May 2014 - without regard for presumption of innocence or right to privacy.

Gurlitt had willed his entire collection to a Swiss foundation in Bern. The German federal government, the state of Bavaria and the Bern Museum of Art agreed to pursue provenience research on all of the works to reveal any that had been looted. Should the Swiss foundation be sued for restitution, Germany agreed to provide financial support.

Gurlitt's will challenged in court

The deal was hanging by a thread. Gurlitt's cousin challenged the validity of his will, arguing that Gurlitt had not been in good psychological health when he wrote it. The responsible court in Munich is expected to resolve that case in February.

Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Taskforce chief Ingeborg Berggreen-MerkelImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Uwe Schneede, chairman of the Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg, has assured the public that lessons have been learned from the Task Force's mistakes. At the center's first conference last November in Berlin, he promised to work "quickly and transparently" in the future.

In the meantime, as Minister Grütters announced on Thursday, 200 pages of information regarding individual drawings and paintings from the Gurlitt collection have been published online, including correspondence from Hildebrand Gurlitt - enabling art historians and particularly potential heirs to review the information themselves and contribute any relevant information on provenience they might have.

At the end of the year, several hundred works from the Gurlitt collection, whose histories have yet to be fully researched, will be on show in an exhibition in Bonn.

It's still unclear how the Gurlitt saga will continue and whether Germany will rescind its statute of limitations concerning Nazi-looted art. Will a law be passed that enables previous owners of Nazi-looted art to demand their property back? These are among the remaining open questions.

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