Lawyer for Collector With Nazi-Looted Art is Dismissed

Wall Street Journal 27 March 2014
By Mary M Lane

Shake-up Signals More Conciliatory Approach in Negotiations over Nazi-Stolen Art

The fight by families of Holocaust victims to recover Nazi-stolen art from the son of a World War II-era art dealer has gained new life after his legal team dismissed his chief negotiator, signaling a more conciliatory approach.

The court-appointed guardian for the now-elderly son, Cornelius Gurlitt, relieved Hannes Hartung from his mandate to negotiate the possible restitution of disputed pieces in Mr. Gurlitt's collection of more than 1,400 artworks, a spokesman for Mr. Gurlitt told The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Hartung didn't respond to requests to comment.

The talks stalled after Mr. Hartung suggested Mr. Gurlitt be offered compensation for any returned artwork. The collector's remaining representatives plan to meet next week with a lawyer acting for the heirs of the trove's most valuable work, an Henri Matisse portrait that experts said could fetch up to $20 million at auction.

Mr. Gurlitt's spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, said the focus of these talks would be "to resolve this situation in the very near future, with a solution that is pretty simple."

The collection, whose existence was made public last year after it was seized by prosecutors in a tax investigation, is believed to be the biggest-ever trove of Nazi-looted art.

Mr. Gurlitt inherited the works from his father, Hildebrand, one of Adolf Hitler's main art dealers. Mr. Hartung told the Journal in January that Mr. Gurlitt wanted to take responsibility and find "fair solutions" for returning Nazi-looted works in his collection including "Woman with a Fan," the 1923 Matisse work belonging to late French dealer Paul Rosenberg and now sought by his descendants. But after a meeting between Mr. Hartung and the Rosenbergs' London-based lawyer, Christopher Marinello, talks fell apart over compensation.

"Anything less than complete restitution without any monetary or nonmonetary compensation is unacceptable for us," Mr. Marinello said on Thursday. He said the "negotiations are still pending and no deal has yet been reached," but the family is open to the discussions with Christoph Edel, Mr. Gurlitt's guardian.

Mr. Rosenberg bought "Woman with a Fan" from Matisse before the war. After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, he stashed it inside a bank vault alongside 160 other masterpieces by such artists as Monet and van Gogh before fleeing to America. The Nazis looted his vault in an organized raid in September 1941.

The Rosenberg heirs, including French journalist Anne Sinclair, the ex-wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have long sought the return of the Matisse portrait.

On Friday, the Henie-Onstad Art Center, a private Norwegian foundation created by Olympic skating champion Sonja Henie, said it would return "Woman in Blue," another Matisse painting from Mr. Rosenberg's lost collection, to the family.

German law states that even if Mr. Gurlitt's father aided in the looting of art, the works rightfully belong to Mr. Gurlitt because the statute of limitations lapsed in the 1970s, when the Rosenberg family still had no knowledge of the work's whereabouts.

Mr. Hartung had used this fact to Sbolster his negotiating position, telling the Journal in February that the Rosenberg family had no recourse to sue if the negotiations broke down.

Following heart surgery several weeks ago, Mr. Gurlitt has been bedridden in a German hospital under an assumed name.
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