Gurlitt's art hoard: Germany faces moral and legal challenges

Voice of Russia 28 November 2013
By Olga Kanorskaya

The German legal system is very likely to take side of Cornelius Gurlitt. Recent revelations about the recovery in Munich of his collection of art including works allegedly looted by the Nazis has launched heated debate in the media and within professional communities of lawyers, art dealers researchers and historians. Extensive coverage of Gurlitt's case worldwide has forced the German authorities to consider the moral aspects of the issue. Marc Mazurovsky, the co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, HARP, in an interview with the Voice of Russia explained the effects of international pressure on the German government.


According to media reports, Cornelius Gurlitt was dealing with art galleries and auction houses. Have you visited any auction houses that used to work with Mr Gurlitt or talked to any of their employees?

No, but when I was in Munich I spoke to the historians and to people who are familiar with the art market and frankly no one was actually surprised how Cornelius Gurlitt could do what he did and complete public view. Because in a circumstance when a whole art market in Munich and even in Bavaria is a very small community, where everybody knows everybody, where one tries to protect one's connections, and when the Austrian press reported that the local art dealers were aware of Cornelius Gurlitt's art collection and if he was old enough he would be probably aware of his father's collection. These people were very well established in the art world and therefore I don't see what the big secret was.

What do you mean be saying "he did what he did"?

Cornelius had the possibility to do something different with the collection and he's chosen not to. And this is a clear indication that he was favoring his father's methods of acquisition. In that type Cornelius does have a kind of responsibility for having nurtured a collection that was partly assembled to his father's involvement recycling works of art, objects that have been illegally removed from private collections.

But this is rather a question of moral guilt and appropriate behavior, isn't it?

In the eye of German law he is not guilty of anything, the other matters that lead him being under investigation is that this is a man who lived with raided art for decades and lived from sales of works from this massive collection. As in all other cases of restitution there are other considerations that enter the final decision: the moral, the ethical, they are also tied to the whole aspect of genocide and crimes against humanity that lead to some of the acquisitions and historically has wade not necessarily in favor of the current possessors, so the verdict regarding people like Cornelius Gurlitt that try to keep these kind of works is rather mixed. I know that in German jurisdiction people like him are rather favored but it is not 100 percent. And there are also political considerations now that there has been such a great publicity surrounding this collection it seems to be a little more difficult to take a narrow legal approach. The Germans can still do it, but with the number of the countries that can be directly or indirectly affected by the decisions regarding this collection, I think there is going to be some pressure for the Salomon solution. It's not going to be perfect, but I hope that the German government realizes that some compromise has to be reached.

The case might move under Austrian jurisdiction, can and will it affect the story in some way?

Well, we don't know if there are any works of art on the Austrian territory, that hasn't been explored. But this is a very smart person and his family had international connections. So this is far from done, this is just the beginning of the investigation.

In case some of the works of art he sold are those that have been plundered. Are they thus also a subject to investigation and restitution?

Well, in cases like that there is nothing that can be done. But every jurisdiction is very different. So the question is how many works that he sold in the past several decades and therefore how many collections have been potentially tainted by works of art that were gotten during the war or during the era of the Reich. It is always possible depending where these works are that a case could be made against a current possessor on the same bases that cases have been made against museums and galleries or even auction houses for holding works of art that are tainted. So you are making a valid point here – this problem could expand financially once we are able to identify what objects were sold in past years by Cornelius Gurlitt. But that's a mystery that could only be solved be the full transparency by the German authorities.

And why is there still no transparency?

I would argue that this is so badly handled because the German government has dig a hole and stuck in it. Once they started in a complete secrecy perhaps as a result of an embarrassment or out of fear that the situation could get out of control with the potential claims, and the bureaucracy is what it is – the more you continue to behave in this fashion, the more difficult it becomes to have a dialogue. But they can still change their mind and say the research needs to be done internationally, this is a historical research, there is nothing classified about it and we benefit immensely from input some specialists and experts from other countries. And if they would have said it in the first place there probably would be no need in newspapers' front pages, but it's partly because there have been absolute refusal to any meaning for dialogue with all parties concerned and that other government hasn't sad nothing for public record is probably prompting the German government to continue in complete secrecy. The tax part is not of our business, but the provenance of some objects is. Well, there would be some who will say it is not of our business, because the collection is in the hands of a private possessor and traditionally no one can enter someone's apartment and ask of the provenance of an object. That's quite true, but there needs to be a compromise about how much can this information be kept confidential and how much could be shared with the public. And we are dealing with ransoms of the Holocaust and the World War II and these are not small items to deal with. We have the duty to do justice where we can even if it is 70 years later.

What is the role of the Jewish organizations in settling the outstanding issues related to property claims and compensations to the survivors of the Holocaust and their heirs with the focus on Nazis' looted ar?t

Let's correct this perception. There's only one Jewish organization that is legally recognized as a negotiator by the German government that is the Claim's Conference. It is engaged in major negotiations with the German government and thus with others in order to get compensation for the hardship and prosecution that Jews had to endure during the entire governance of the Third Reich. So the Claim's Conference along with others has been able to collect billions of dollars of compensation for survivors. One would say this is a kind of wholesale approach, but that's wrong headed. A compensation is not restitution. In terms of art objects no one is going around saying the Conference shouldn't be at the table, the concern is that the Conference has the right to express the views of the survivors and Holocaust victims, so the German government can take the right decision based on this unique investigation. Now there is a question of assets that will be impossible to trace back to original owners and this is really end of the road. Once the collection is fully identified and the original owners are traced, there will be a small or a large group of items that has no previous owners to be associated with them and this is only at that time that negotiation might take place between the Claim's Conference and the German government. But it is not written in stone that it is going to the court. It is just a traditional approach to the early assets, but because of international agreements signed as in 1946 that so-called success organizations are allowed to take custody of those types of assets and can do two things – to look for the owner or to dispose of them. But historically the Conference never disposed of cultural objects since it was never part of its mandate. But I think that it has been invited by the German government only because the only legally recognized international Jewish organization on German soil.

And judging from your own experience how many restitution cases are actually successfully solved?

Unfortunately nobody sits down to do an audit of these types of cases. I don't think there are many of them. In the last years there has been a least a dozen cases. There might be a lot more, it's just that these settlements are not publicized. I maintain that a lot of claims have been filed, but only a small percentage has actually ended with restitution. The current trend is to get to a financial settlement. I'm not sure it's the best way to handle these kinds of cases resulting some pain, hardship and suffering during the Holocaust period. And this is the one that is unfortunately favored by the German government diplomats and different public advocates, except for the survivors themselves, because they feel that they are sort of backed up in a corner where their choice is rather nothing or a fair solution.
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