How Gurlitt Wants To Return Masterpieces From His Phenomenal Art Collection

Süddeutsche Zeitung International 31 March 2014
By Hans Leyendecker, Georg Mascolo and Jörg Häntzschel


Henri Matisse’s portrait “Seated Woman/Woman Sitting in Armchair”—known for its radiating, trusting intimacy—already has a long history. Now the painting may have yet another story to tell. A new chapter has been opened for “Seated Woman” by the Gurlitt case. Perhaps even a chapter of redemption.

In the days of February and March of 2012, as investigators searched the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, confiscating some 1,280 works of art, “Seated Woman” was among them. The portrait had been taken out of its frame and left loose. Had someone transported the priceless artwork unframed, or—even worse—rolled up? The painting, made around 1924, is estimated to bare a price at least in the low double-digit millions. And actually, it’s a wonder it still exists.

When German troops flew over France in 1940, the Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who owned “Seated Woman,” hid it with other valuable works of art in a safe in the small village of Libourne in France’s Dordogne region. Nazi henchmen looted the safe in 1941. For a short time, the portrait was part of the looted art collection of Hermann Göring, a leading member of the Nazi party. He then traded it for a piece of work from the School of Fontainebleau, with art dealer Gustav Rochlitz.

Later the painting somehow landed in the hands of Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius Gurlitt’s father. Places and dates tracing the transfer of the stolen goods are hard to come by. The original owner Paul Rosenberg was an art dealer but hadn’t planned on selling “Seated Woman”. So when the war was over he went on an extensive search for his stolen painting. 

His holdings were surprisingly well documented. His two granddaughters Marianne Rosenberg and Anne Sinclair (one a prominent lawyer in New York, the other Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s ex-wife) also find the theft of their grandfather’s art hard to let go. “I think of it as a crusade,” Marianne Rosenberg told the New York Times in 2013. And now atonement seems to be closer than ever.

"We’re not saying, ‘go ahead—sue us!’” 

Supposedly the 81-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt now wants to give “Seated Woman” back to the Rosenbergs, without conditions. The move is meant to prove that Cornelius Gurlitt isn’t apathetic to the Nazi crimes. And that he wants to help right the wrongs of war. The restitution lawyer Christopher A. Marinello, Director of the Art Loss Register, who represents the Rosenberg heirs, met several months ago with Hannes Hartung, one of Gurlitt’s lawyers in London, to discuss the Matisse painting.

"You can see that we’re not taking a traditional legal stance," Hartung told Süddeutsche Zeitung after the London meeting. "We’re not crying, ‘statue of limitations!’ We’re not saying, ‘go ahead—sue us!’” 

It’s still unclear under what conditions Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired the Matisse painting, but negotiations for a hand-over continue. The Rosenberg heirs still haven’t received the painting, which is among the confiscated items that the Austrian public prosecutor in Ausburg obtained in 2012. The German authorities owe it to the victims to solve the case quickly, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer Marinello said early in the process.

Since December no one has been able to talk to Gurlitt, who isn’t doing well after heart surgery and is confined to a hospital. Others do the talking for him: the criminal defense lawyer Tido Park (who wrote the standard reference book on “Search and Seizure”), the criminal defense lawyer Derek Setz, Hartung, the art expert, and the PR expert Stephan Holzinger. And most importantly, his legal counsel Christoph Edel, who the court appointed Gurlitt in December.

Edel visits Gurlitt regularly in the hospital and they discuss how to proceed with the art collection for hours on end. Gurlitt says he promised his father, Hildebrand—also an art collector, who died in 1956—that he would protect the collection. But he also doesn’t want any more legal trouble. “It is Cornelius Gurlitt’s wishes that the paintings that were robbed or stolen be returned to their Jewish owners or their heirs,” Edel said. “He’s given us free rein to do so.” We should all feel “confident” that a solution would quickly be reached. It almost sounded like a bulletin. And now Gurlitt had to live up to the promise.

Central legal issues still await a concrete resolution

It threw his confidants into a crisis. Would Marinello come to Munich to sign the necessary legal contracts on Wednesday? Was everyone in Gurlitt’s entourage in agreement about the contracts? Marinello didn’t come. He stayed in Paris. Six heirs had already come forward demanding their art be returned. The number of allegedly stolen works grew to 590. The real number is considerably lower, but exactly how low is also unclear, even among Gurlitt’s lawyers. One said there were “40 to 50” works to be returned. Another lawyer, Hartung, considered that number much too high.

Apart from the Matisse, there is a drawing by Spitzweg (which Gurlitt claims to have bought from the music publisher Henri Hinrichsen shortly before he fled to Belgium in 1940), two works by Otto Dix, about 13 paintings from the collection of the Jewish lawyer Fritz Salo Glaser, and Max Liebermann’s well-known painting “Two Riders on the Beach,” which the Polish art collector David Friedmann’s heirs demand be returned. Hartung says there’s no evidence to prove the works by Glaser weren’t already in Gurlitt’s possession by as early as 1933. Hartung also has doubts about “Two Riders”. 

To confuse things even more, Gurlitt’s legal team isn’t in agreement on some of the very basics. On Wednesday Hannes Hartung, who was responsible for negotiations with the claimants, was withdrawn from his post. He is no longer allowed to speak for Gurlitt. Through the many twists and turns in this bazaar case, the central legal issues still await a concrete resolution. 

Gurlitt then decided to bring some transparency to the matter. A team from German public television broadcasters WDR and NDR and the Süddeutsche Zeitung would be allowed to see the paintings that had been found just a month before where they now were being kept, in his Salzburg home. When the Salzburg discovery first became public, there was talk of some 60 pieces of art being held there. Turns out, there are many more. The list includes some 238 paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sculptures.

The house was in “absolute disrepair”

We’re used to seeing great art hung on freshly-washed walls in stately buildings, or in well-designed homes. Sometimes great art is kept in a safe as its worth appreciates. For more than a month, these hundreds of pieces of artwork including original Monets, Picassos, and Renoirs were kept in a place neither Gurlitt’s own confidants or German investigators would’ve ever suspected.

It was a sunny morning on February 10 as lawyers, art experts, security forces, and—as a precaution—someone from the insurance company, all made their way to 9 Carl-Storch Street. Most of the cars were parked on side streets. Even during the preparation for the tour, things remained mysterious. A code name for the trip was agreed upon: “company outing.”

Cornelius Gurlitt says he has lived in the Salzburg house for 50 years. The German Honorary Consul in Salzburg issued him a passport in 2001. In 2012, a Munich tax investigator asked the Salzburg officials how long Gurlitt had lived there. They said the house was in “absolute disrepair” and they presumed it “impossible” for Gurlitt to be living there. But, apparently he was.

In 2011 Gurlitt had moved into a 100-square-meter apartment in Munich, which he owns. From there the trips to his doctor in the neighboring region weren’t so long. 

With the discovery of the Salzburg collection, the true immensity of Gurlitt’s vast art collection began to reveal itself. There were some 1,518 pieces of art in addition to the 1,280 in his apartment. Which begs the question: Are there other depots that simply haven’t surfaced yet? No one knows, but it’s definitely not impossible. Gurlitt’s father controlled six such art depots at one time.

The entire collection found in the Munich raid is in the hands of the German justice department. But not a single piece of the Salzburg house collection was confiscated, as there’s no proof any of it was obtained illegally. Two years ago, when the Ausburg district attorney’s office requested administrative assistance, the Austrian judiciary said they were not able to help for legal technical reasons.

“Aware of the moral dimensions of the case”

In Germany a task force was set up to determine the origins of Gurlitt’s art. How exactly they are doing this isn’t public information. But the art in the Salzburg house isn’t part of their investigation. Gurlitt himself says he wants to find out the story behind these. “We’re on our way to get something going,” his lawyer, Edel, said. Either independent researchers or “existing institutions” would be contracted for the work. “No specific cases of looted art have been found yet in Salzburg.” 

It’s likely though that some of the works in Salzburg were in fact looted. And if they were, they’d have to be returned. Defense lawyers trained in Latin speak of criminal cases as a process because they must progress. And for many involved in the legal case, this has been quite the learning process.

On February 14 the search-and-seizure specialist Tido Park filed a 45-page wrongful confiscation complaint about the drawings and paintings in Munich with the District Court of Ausburg. The complaint—which calls into question the two-page search warrant the Ausburg district attorney issued in 2011—is itself a work of artful juristic acrobatics. Park uses legalese such as “undue investigation search” and “seizure inappropriateness”—creations that can leave even federal judges feeling challenged.

Park argued that his client and the defense were “aware of the moral dimensions of the case.” But the criminal case was, “not the right place for moral categories.” The authorities suspect any over-due taxes on the art collection to be relatively small. Why then, Park asked, would the entire collection have to be taken as collateral? A single painting would cover the alleged tax debt. The “judicial determination of the legality of the confiscation of this entire collection,” is of “preeminent importance,” Park wrote. But the prosecution objected; they maintain that the seizure of art was proper and lawful.

All Gurlitt’s trouble began at a German-Swiss border customs inspection in September 2010. Gurlitt caught the attention of customs officers. He seemed nervous. They patted him down and found a white envelope full of 9,000 euros in his jacket pocket. When asked where the money came from Gurlitt said it was from an auction house sale in Bern, Switzerland where he had sold some of his father’s paintings. The Augsburg public prosecutor opened proceedings on the grounds that he had shorted the state on import sales taxes. But import sales tax law only applies when the goods are brought into the European Union and not when the goods were sold in a foreign country. A strange case, indeed.

During the search of the Munich apartment on February 28, 2012 Gurlitt answered questions posed by an investigator: How did he get all these paintings? From his father, Gurlitt said. What does he live from? From capital gains from his investments, Gurlitt said. He didn’t make much from them, but he’s always lived rent-free. Very occasionally he would sell a piece of art. The last time he did that was more than 20 years ago, he said. “Do you have anything else to say?,” the investigator asked. “Yes,” Gurlitt said. He wanted to “protest” against the fact that he was being investigated. Gurlitt said he never imported any art from Switzerland. This elusive old man who led a phantom existence for all these years wanted to clear his name.

“Alone with his paintings”

At the very beginning of the Gurlitt examination papers there’s a sentence that reads: “I have a great fortune.” Gurlitt later struck through the word ‘great’. In letters written on a typewriter and fitted with a tiny signature, Gurlitt tried amiably to explain his story to a prosecutor and the customs legal counsel. He has to pay his doctors. He isn’t insured. That’s why he has to sell these paintings. His whole life revolves around these paintings and the doctors who take care of him. Gurlitt had, “only the absolute necessary contact with the outside world for the last few decades,” his lawyer Park wrote. He lives “alone with his paintings.” He doesn’t receive retirement or pension benefits and has no health insurance either. Gurlitt wrote: “I can’t make a bad financial impression when I go to the hospital and am treated by doctors.” To be able to pay for all those visits over the years, he was forced to sell stocks from his Swiss accounts and to replenish the accounts he sometimes has to sell a piece of art in Switzerland. He has two equity portfolios and bank accounts in Switzerland whose values taken together add up to a million euros. Yet he told investigators that he never “possessed securities or bonds.”

He could explain the story behind his family’s art. The collection was from his father, who died in 1956. His mother moved to a northern district of Munich in 1960 and bought two apartments, one in which Cornelius Gurlitt now lived. A moving company helped move the art to Munich. His mother died in 1968 and left an unsigned will. Cornelius and his sister Benita were to inherit the estate of their mother in equal parts. Cornelius was to manage the art collection. The two siblings were supposed to pay a large amount of inheritance tax. Nothing was paid. The state’s claim is now past the statute of limitations.

The more the investigators looked into the phenomenon of the Gurlitt family’s history, the fuzzier the picture got. They searched for a criminal charge that could justify their cause. Was there an attempt to launder money? There was nothing to prove it. The tax inspectors were engaged but they weren’t quite sure what they should do. Whether Gurlitt really was—as the prosecution believed—leading an illegal art market still could not be proven. That’s what the Munich tax investigator told the prosecutor’s office last November. There just weren’t any of the credible evidence which the state needed to proceed. After all, Gurlitt only just got his first taxpayer ID in Munich in 2013.

Prosecutors continue to look for evidence that he may have sold art commercially and hidden the profits. They discovered a book called “England. Höhepunkte erotischer Literatur berühmter Autoren.” (England: Highlights of erotic literature by famous authors.) Pages 171 to 520 of the book were removed, and it appeared as though someone was using the cavity of the missing pages to hide money. In the cash box they found a Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper from October 23, 1974 folded and glued shut and the investigators believe that could also have been used to hide cash. Or, was it just a memento?

Gurlitt wants to move back in — but the paintings will not return

In Gurlitt’s apartment the investigators found a suitcase filled with 149 photos of works of art. Had he visited prospective buyers with this makeshift portfolio? The allegations were weak.

What would happen if after all this the court simply lifted the seizure of possessions and gave all the art back to Gurlitt? His lawyer Park wrote at the end of his complaint that it was “imaginable” for Gurlitt to “voluntarily” allow the authorities to maintain custody of legally controversial pieces of art. That way, “before and after any legal judgment,” he could be “assured access to the art as the beneficiary.” Sounds complicated. But it could be an act of reparation. A new chapter. And it could mean the return of “Seated Woman”. 

The apartment in northern Munich is now being renovated. If and when Gurlitt comes back from the hospital he wants to move back in. The paintings, though, will not return. For many reasons. The million-euro art trove behind a simple house door—is no longer imaginable. Not any more.

(Translation by Candice Novak, photo by dpa)
© website copyright Central Registry 2022