Nazi art dealer’s heir claims most of $1.4b. collection not looted

The Times of Israel 17 February 2014
By Amanda Borschel-Dan

Gurlitt’s legal team in talks with six claimants, but opens website which asserts only 35 of 1,400 confiscated paintings may be tainted

A combination of photos released by prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany on November 12, 2013 show five of the 1,400 paintings believed looted by the Nazis, seized from a Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt  (photo credit: prosecutors/AFP/File)
A combination of photos released by prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany on November 12, 2013 show five of the 1,400 paintings believed looted by the Nazis, seized from a Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt (photo credit: prosecutors/AFP/File)

A lawyer for the elderly art collector whose $1.4 billion-worth of works were seized by German police two years ago said he is in negotiations with six claimants who are seeking items stolen from them or their families by the Nazis.

Hannes Hartung, who represents Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, said the claims cover three percent of the more than 1,400 works authorities confiscated from the collector’s Munich apartment in 2012.

Hartung said in a statement Monday that Gurlitt’s case was being treated more harshly than other public and private collections in Germany, which may also be in possession of stolen art.

He encouraged further potential claimants to submit their claims through a newly created website in which Hartung states that at most, only some 35 paintings may be restituted.

A leading art restitution lawyer, Markus Stoetzel, noted to The Times of Israel Monday, ”Obviously Cornelius Gurlitt and his lawyers feel strong and secure — based on what knowledge? — that there is only a small percentage of potential looted art claims from Jewish victims families.”

Der Spiegel's cover story on Cornelius Gurlitt, November 2013

Der Spiegel’s cover story on Cornelius Gurlitt, November 2013

According to this new German-language website, partially translated to English, Gurlitt inherited his collection along with his sister Benita after the death of their mother Helene in 1968. As a result, the site claims, “In accordance with German law, Cornelius Gurlitt has therefore long been the sole rightful owner of all 1,280 of the works seized.” (Most media reports use the number 1,400 when speaking of the number of works seized by police.)

Interestingly, sister Benita’s widower turned in some two dozen paintings to the police following the publication of his brother-in-law’s bust in November 2013.

Recently another art trove of 60 works was found in an additional Gurlitt home in Salzburg, including painters such as Monet, Renoir and Picasso. According to preliminary reports, this latest find does not include suspected Nazi-tainted art.

Gurlitt’s new website addresses two categories of suspected art in the collection: Nazi-looted art and “degenerate art” –modern art Hitler felt was unsuitable to the ethos of the Aryan race. The latter group, the site states, may be purchased from Gurlitt on the assumption his collection will be returned to him by the authorities who seized it.

The site states that only after the return of the entire collection by the Augsburg public prosecutors and the customs authorities will Gurlitt be prepared to resolve claims of suspected looted art, “where qualified, documented, and justified claims for their return are asserted by heirs of Jewish of persecution [sic] and where morally compelling grounds exist.”

According to the German-language website, the lawyers are in talks with six families (though the English translation states four) — the Rosenberg, Friedmann, Glaser, and Littmann heirs and two unidentified claimants

However, in a section in which lawyer Hartung describes the legalities of the case, he states, “There are no legal grounds that would compel Cornelius Gurlitt to return the so-called looted art.”

The site bitterly complains about the “indiscretion” of the police that made the seized trove public — some 18 months after its find — saying it “placed the entire collection under suspicion of being looted art without any compelling evidence. To this day there are no concrete proofs or indications for these wholesale allegations.”

Additionally, the lawyers protest as unnecessary the Bavarian state’s institution of the Schwabinger Kunstfund, a provenance task force set up specially to deal with Gurlitt’s collection, made up of an international panel of researchers and art historians, including two Israelis.

Under public outcry for lack of transparency and legislation in cases of Nazi-looted art, Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback drafted new legislation to ease the 30-year statute of limitations in cases of Nazi-looted art. It passed a first reading in Bavaria, moved to the upper house of the German parliament, and is set to be read a third time in the lower house sometime before the summer recess.

It is likely, however, that the Gurlitt case would be excluded from any new statute of limitations law as both the Munich and Salzburg finds precede it.

“It is hard to understand why some elements in Germany are turning their backs on art seized through Nazi terror. Some will sink to the lowest levels to hold onto art taken through Nazi terror. Technical defenses are being used. Nazi documentation is being presented. What has happened to morality? Why the sudden amnesia?” said New York-based lawyer Mel Urbach, a pioneer in the field of art restitution and the son of a Holocaust survivor.

“Germany has always been the leader in providing justice for Shoah victims. The approach of the new cultural minister and the legislation to remove the 30-year statute of limitations on civil claims are very positive steps in the right direction,” said Urbach.
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