Gurlitt case: Interview with Christopher A. Marinello, lawyer of the heirs of art dealer and Nazi victim Paul Rosenberg

ArtEconomy 24 4 December 2013
di Silvia Anna Barrilà

After seven years at the Art Loss Register, lawyer Christopher A. Marinello has left the British company founded by Julian Radcliffe to start his own company dedicated to the recovery of stolen artworks. Among his clients are already big names such as the Rosenberg family, heir to one of the most important art dealers of the twentieth century, Paul Rosenberg. Rosenberg has represented artists such as Picasso, Braque, and Matisse through his galleries in Paris, London, and New York. During the war, his collection was seized by the Nazis and then only partially recovered after the war. Christopher A. Marinello currently assists the Rosenbergs in the recovery of two Matisse: one from the Norwegian Museum Henie Onstad Arts Center, and the other from the much-discussed treasure of Cornelius Gurlitt, which was found in the apartment of the suspect in Munich two years ago and hidden by the German authorities until Focus magazine revealed the news a few weeks ago.

Can you tell us more about these two cases?
With regard to the Matisse in Norway, we are currently in the process of negotiating with the museum and their lawyers to find a fair and just solution that would return this looted painting to its rightful owners.

And the Gurlitt case?
I represent the Rosenberg heirs in the Gurlitt case as well. We have submitted a formal claim to the German authorities for the work by Henri Matisse entitled La Femme assise.
Can you tell us more about the painting, its history, and how it was recognized by the family?
This Matisse was purchased by Paul Rosenberg in 1923 and incorporated into his private collection. It was looted by the Nazis from his bank vault in 1941, where he stored it before fleeing Europe with his family. Paul Rosenberg and his heirs have been actively searching for this painting since 1944. We first learned that it might have reappeared after reading the Focus magazine article. It was confirmed once images of the objects seized from Gurlitt were released earlier this month.

How did it end up in Gurlitt's hands?
After the work was stolen by the Nazis from Rosenberg's vault in 1941, it was brought to Paris where it came into the hands of convicted Nazi art dealer, Gustav Rochlitz. During his time as an agent for Hitler, Hildebrandt Gurlitt apparently acquired the work in 1944, possibly from Rochlitz directly; there exists overwhelming documentation that this work was illegally dispossessed from Paul Rosenberg and thus ample material support of the claim for restitution. While it would be interesting to know precisely how Hildebrandt Gurlitt obtained the work, it is not material to our claim.

How much is the estimated value of the two Matisse paintings?
These works have no value in the hands of their current possessors. The true value of these works lies in the opportunity for the family to recover their past and have returned to them paintings which are rightfully theirs. There is only one reason why these two works are in the hands of the current possessors and that is Nazi persecution.

How are the German authorities behaving? Why have they kept the silence for so long? What is their position?
Not very well, I'm afraid. They made some glaring and insensitive errors in keeping this news quiet for almost 2 years. Researchers around the world could have been working on this matter all this time. At this stage, we expect the German authorities to make up for these errors and move expeditiously to identify the looted works and return them to the rightful wners.

Some say that Gurlitt owns the works legally, so if he is not willing to cooperate and does not want to give the works back, there is no chance for the heirs to have them back. What do you answer to this?
The German authorities need to think proactively and in terms of customary international law to overcome any hurdles presented by current German civil laws that may adversely affect restitution. They could make a deal with Mr. Gurlitt in conjunction with the tax charges against him. If the German authorities do not engage and, instead, return these works to Gurlitt, they would be universally condemned. It would also force claimants to bring civil claims against Mr. Gurlitt.
I don't think Germany is prepared to deal with the international outrage they would face if they chose this course of action.

What about the fact that after 30 years there is no right to claim the works back anymore? How does this work?
This is not a black and white case. It requires a strategic and creative solution, thinking about the larger moral and ethical implications, and Germany's previous role as a leader in restitution procedures. I hope the Augsburg prosecutor's office is up to the task. At Art Recovery International, we specialize in resolving these types of issues even when the letter of the law might not be in our favour as a result of an individual country's civil code not yet having evolved to reflect the special nature of Holocaust-era property claims. I refuse to concede, however, that Gurlitt has legal title to these looted works.

How many paintings of the Rosenberg family have been seized by the Germans and how many are still missing? How much is their total value?
The value of the works to the family is incalculable given their suffering and the suffering of countless others under the Nazi regime. Paul Rosenberg was an extraordinary individual who paved the way for the restitution of art dispossessed during the Nazi-era through his fervent quest to recover his collection. That quest was taken up by his son and daughter-in-law, and will be continued by his grandchildren.

Why have you decided to leave the Art Loss Register and start your own company, namely Art Recovery International?
I handled all the art recovery and mediation cases for the Art Loss Register over the last 7 years. As you may have seen in recent press reports, my methods are very different from those of the current management. I am a lawyer by trade and adhere to the strict ethical obligations of my profession. I did my best to change the way the ALR operated but their Board and Management team are hopelessly set in their ways. I decided that true transparency could not exist under current management, and therefore, a new organization and database needed to be constructed from the ground up. The marketplace desperately needs a central database of stolen, looted and claimed works of art that is run ethically and responsibly.

Can you make any example of this lack of transparency?
I don't want to disparage or embarrass the ALR. The art trade will make their own decisions about which organization they wish to use for due diligence services and who can best resolve complex title disputes concerning fine art.

What are you going to do through your company?
I will continue to handle art recovery cases for theft victims, museums, and victims of Nazi looting. We are currently building a technologically advanced database of stolen and looted artwork that will work with police forces, not against them. We offer pro bono services for eligible artists and theft victims. We are also involved in the planning of an annual Art Crime Conference at New York University in June 2014. Last year the conference was held at NYU London and was a great success. We're hoping for NYU Firenze in 2015.

Are you going to operate in Italy, as well?
I am actively seeking to do more work in Italy for auction houses, dealers, collectors, and lawyers. The Italian art trade is very knowledgeable and discrete. However, it can benefit from increased due diligence and provenance research services. I offer a confidential service that will preserve pre-existing relationships that are so important in the art trade. My services are available to the Carabinieri Art Squad at no cost. I enjoy working with them; they are among the world's best at solving crimes involving art and cultural heritage.

Do you already work with Italian clients? If yes, with whom?
I have resolved many complex art title disputes in Italy over the last few months involving top collectors, dealers and museums. I never release their names unless the client wishes to go public.

How are you going to approach Italian clients, and what are you going to offer them?
In Italy, business is about building relationships. Since launching Art Recovery International, I have had a great deal of support from the Italian art trade who respect my vision for the company and know that I can be effective while maintaining confidentiality.
There is nothing more expensive, time consuming, and damaging to the reputation of a dealer, auction house, insurer or collector, than litigation. I am offering my services to Italian clients to discretely and professionally resolve complex title disputes and recover stolen works of art without the need to
file court proceedings.
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