Who really owns the Gurlitt art treasures?

The Times 13 March 2014
By David Charter

The son of a Third Reich dealer says they are his. Tell that to the families of the Jewish collectors who once owned them

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Cornelius Gurlitt. For two years the reclusive 81-year-old has been living in limbo after the German authorities seized his sensational collection of art containing works by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall among others, all bequeathed to him by his father, the Third Reich art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. Gurlitt’s lawyers now claim that at most 3 per cent of the 1,280 canvases were possibly looted from their original Jewish owners despite banner headlines of a “Nazi treasure trove” when the story of the discovery broke last November.

Following a few brief public appearances when he seemed confused and incoherent, Gurlitt went to ground and a legal custodian was appointed in December on health grounds as the strain proved to be too much. The Times has now learnt that he is currently recovering from heart surgery.
Gurlitt’s lawyers also say that, unlike some museums and other private collectors, he stands ready to find agreement over any claim that his father acquired a painting illegally during the Nazi era. On the one known occasion, shortly before his collection was seized, when he took a painting to auction (The Lion Tamer by Max Beckmann) Gurlitt did a deal to split the proceeds with the heirs of the painting’s Jewish former owner. Germany has been left wondering just who the real Cornelius Gurlitt is: the blameless and naive art lover or a grasping hoarder?

One of the few independent experts to have seen the entire collection has now decided to speak out in Gurlitt’s defence. “Cornelius Gurlitt has not done anything wrong,” says Dr Sibylle Ehringhaus, an expert in 19th-century art and a provenance investigator based in Berlin. She reflects a German view that the sins of the father should not be visited on the son. “The pictures belong to him — the entire collection must be returned to him as soon as possible. The State has made a big mistake and it must admit it — and make up for it.”

Ehringhaus was one of three experts who received a telephone call in March 2012 from the authorities in Bavaria asking them to participate in a top-secret mission. A private collection of artworks had been discovered in the Schwabing district of northern Munich by tax inspectors investigating a routine VAT case. Would she come and take a look? Ehringhaus, who rarely gets the chance to see private collections as a whole, jumped at the chance.

The trio of experts was given just 48 hours to look though the entire treasure trove. “It was very well kept,” Dr Ehringhaus says. “Usually we know the museum collections and they are used, they are not as fresh, but here the quality is brilliant and fresh because it was in this private collection for 60 years. The heart certainly beat a little faster.” This contradicts the image presented by Focus, the German news magazine that broke the story in November of a collection rescued from a run-down apartment where it was stashed in folders and boxes on the same shelves as tins of food.

The works are varied, ranging from sketches and prints to paintings from many eras. The focus is on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the now well-known highlights including an Otto Dix self-portrait with cigar, a portrait of a woman by Henri Matisse, a Marc Chagall modernist allegorical scene and one of Franz Marc’s “blue horses” paintings. They fall into three main groups: about 330 works said to have been acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt before 1933, when the Nazi era began, and therefore likely to be returned to Gurlitt soon; about 380 examples of so-called Degenerate Art, the modernist works detested by the Nazis which they seized from public museums and Gurlitt senior acquired from the regime by cash or trade; and 590 other items from Hildebrand’s wheeler-dealering during the war and up until his death in 1956.

While 458 works of questionable provenance have so far been put on the website, Gurlitt’s lawyers say that just four claims for restitution have been received and two more are being discussed. The contested works include a Matisse that once belonged to the art dealer Paul Rosenberg and is being claimed by his grand-daughter Anne Sinclair, the former wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, ex-director of the International Monetary Fund.
“At most 35 of the 1,280 works seized by the German authorities are critical works that could have a background of being Nazi-looted art from former Jewish property,” claims the website, set up by Gurlitt’s lawyers to put his side of the story. It names the four confirmed claimants as the Rosenberg, Friedmann, Glaser and Littmann heirs. “The authorities who made the case public in the first place placed the entire collection under suspicion of being looted art without any compelling evidence,” his lawyers say.

So was Gurlitt more sinned against than sinning? Ehringhaus says that the case has become a political football, one that is being kicked by Berlin firmly towards the goal of new legislation. Currently, under Germany’s 30-year statute of limitations, the dispossessed had until 1975 at the latest to reclaim their property, unless claimants could prove bad faith by the owner. But last month a new law was presented to the Bundesrat, the German upper house, proposing to lift the statute of limitations for items stolen under the Nazi regime — a move that Ehringhaus fervently opposes. “In 2014, neither Cornelius Gurlitt nor any owner of looted art has himself or herself done anything wrong. That is the statute; you cannot take something away from people who have not done anything.

“There are private collections all over the world where there is looted art, even in England. If I was to work on a collection and find a piece of looted artwork I would first of all talk to the owner, the usual way,and they would decide what to do with it. Gurlitt was caught up in a political debate that does not have anything to do with him. He is a sort of victim.”

Gurlitt’s lawyers have also highlighted the can of worms waiting to be opened by the new law, since it would implicate museums in Germany as well as private owners. In his only media interview, with Der Spiegel magazine on November 17, 2013, Gurlitt remained defiant. “I won’t speak with them and I won’t voluntarily give back anything, no. The public prosecutor has enough that exonerates me,” he was quoted as saying. His lawyers have since finessed his thoughts. “Mr Gurlitt has explained several times . . . that he is interested in finding amicable solutions with private claimants about contested artworks, even though the underlying legal situation would not require this.”

Hildebrand Gurlitt’s image is also undergoing a polish. His “avid acquisition activities” were “among other things motivated by the desire to save art labelled as degenerate from its destruction”, states. On February 14, Gurlitt’s team filed an appeal with the court in Augsburg, the seat of the Bavarian prosecutor, against the search warrant and seizure order it issued for the raid on his Munich apartment. Many of those in the German art world — including those who believe it was right for the art to be removed — think much of it will be returned sooner or later.

Campaigners for the dispossessed fear that the focus on Gurlitt’s rights is obscuring the real victims of the looted art story, the Jewish families deprived of their treasures. One of them is Anne Webber, co-chairman of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. “There have been 458 works published and Mr Gurlitt’s lawyers say only 3 per cent were looted but it is hard to know on what basis they can say that,” she says, and accuses the authorities of holding back vital evidence from the Gurlitt record books, which provide more detail on where, when and from whom Hildebrand Gurlitt bought his collection. “If they are entitled to publish these paintings on the grounds that they are investigating a criminal offence, they are surely also entitled to publish this information which may clarify if a criminal offence has been committed.”

Hildebrand Gurlitt was far from blameless. Not only did he thrive as an approved art dealer tasked with acquiring works for Adolf Hitler’s never realised Führermuseum, but documents prove that he lied to the so-called “Monuments Men” who were trying to restore art to the dispossessed during the last years of the Second World War. The Friedmann heirs have a letter from 1939 showing that a Nazi official had his eyes on Two Riders on a Beach by Max Liebermann, which was hanging in the home of the collector David Friedmann. Friedmann died in 1942 and his two grand nephews have been looking for the painting for years. They were astounded to see it among the first dozen works made public in the Gurlitt collection. Monuments Men documents show that in 1950 Hildebrand Gurlitt filled in a form claiming that he acquired the painting before 1930, a bare-faced lie that allowed him to keep it.

Gurlitt’s team refuses to comment on whether the other items seized from his flat include Hildebrand’s record books. Nor has Gurlitt’s newfound commitment to openness so far stretched to a second batch of more than 60 paintings recovered on his behalf from his other home in Salzburg on February 10. They include works by Monet, Renoir and Picasso and Europe’s art world is buzzing with talk that they are more spectacular than anything in the original collection. Gurlitt “has asked experts to examine these pieces, partly to determine whether they might be stolen art”, his lawyers said in a statement. “Their initial assessment — based on a preliminary inspection — is that there is no evidence to suggest that they may be stolen.”

The Austrian authorities, unlike their colleagues across the border in Bavaria, have shown no interest in investigating. The Salzburg paintings, according to Gurlitt’s lawyers, have been taken to a safe place “to prevent any theft or burglary”. The irony of that statement will not be lost on those still battling to right the wrongs of the Nazi era and reach the truth about the elusive Cornelius Gurlitt.
© website copyright Central Registry 2022