Gurlitt case: 'Nazi-looted art to remain in administrative trust'

Deutsche Welle 8 May 2014
Interview by Heike Mund

Cornelius Gurlitt's death prompts many questions. Most importantly: What will happen to his extensive and questionable art collection? Walter Schön from the Bavarian Justice Department has the answer.

Art heir Cornelius Gurlitt died at the age of 81 in Munich, four weeks after he had legally allowed the Federal Republic of Germany and the Free State of Bavaria to access his art collection in order to investigate whether it contains works looted during the Nazi era. The head of the Bavarian Justice Department, Dr. Walter Schön, was present when this agreement was made.

DW: The case has not been closed with the death of Cornelius Gurlitt. What is going to happen to the art collection and the contract now?

Walter Schön:We made an agreement that extends beyond the death of Mr. Gurlitt. According to German law the heirs are also bound to this contract. We expect that what was publically important to us - resolving the provenance of the artworks and the willingness of Mr. Gurlitt to restitute them - will still be possible.

What does that mean for the whereabouts of the works? The seizure through the Department of Public Prosecution in Augsburg was reversed after the agreement was signed.

Cornelius Gurlitt's father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, kept an inventory of his art collection

When it comes to the whereabouts of the works of art, the contract states that they will remain in custody until the foreseeable conclusion of the provenance research - which will likely be in March of next year. The works of art are safely stored so that the provenance research can proceed without any restrictions. As soon as the origin of the pictures has been clarified and as long as there are no restitution claims, we will naturally return them to the heirs.

In case the provenance research can't be concluded, it was agreed that the works will still be returned. But the heirs are obligated to enable further provenance research and grant access to the works. All of the artworks for which restitution claims have already been made, or will be made, will be kept in administrative trust. That's what the heir Gurlitt and the public affiliate, meaning the Federal Republic of Germany and the Free State of Bavaria, have agreed on.

What's the legal procedure for making property claims now that Cornelius Gurlitt has died?

That's something the heirs have to deal with, just like Mr. Gurlitt had to deal with these claims and the claimants - via his lawyers.

Berndhard Kretschmar's painting of a tram is part of Gurlitt's art collection including more than 1,400 works of art

How important is it in this context that it was possible to personally interview Cornelius Gurlitt for the provenance research?

While Mr. Gurlitt was still alive, it was his understandable interest that everything happen as quickly as possible and that he would be able to witness the moment of decision as to what rightfully belonged to him and what would have to be restituted. But unfortunately he won't be able to witness that.

How will the Gurlitt case continue for the Public Prosecution Department in Augsburg now that he has died?

The Public Prosecution Department in Augsburg has reversed the decision to seize the works of art in light of the agreement, because Mr. Gurlitt voluntarily agreed that the art trove could be investigated at any time. The Public Prosecution Department also wanted to close the case. With the death of the defendant, the criminal investigation proceedings have now ceased.

What conclusions should the public draw from the Gurlitt case? Where do you see need for action in the future? The case showed that many questions remained unanswered for decades.

There is indeed a call for action, and that also goes for the legislature on a federal level. The free state of Bavaria has introduced a draft bill that will limit the plea for a statute of limitations regarding property claims. This draft bill is now being discussed by the judiciary committee in the German Bundesrat. And we hope that it will also soon be discussed by the plenum in the Bundesrat and that the federal government will take appropriate steps.

The art trove find was a sensation and caused immense interest within Germany as well as from abroad

The international community paid close attention to the way Germany dealt with the case. There was a lack of understanding at to why Germany didn't want to reopen the debate on the statute of limitations and why there is no clear law on returning art in Germany. Was the case also an impetus to approach these issues again?

This whole public debate shows that there is still a need for discussion - even decades after the end of the Third Reich. And that didn't just stop with the death of Mr. Gurlitt.

Gurlitt's collection includes some of the biggest names in 20th-century art - like Claude Monet

Do you want this debate so that the legal foundation can be laid for returning Nazi-looted art?

I think we owe it to the victims to create more legal clarification, because they have possibly lost their property in a very dubious way.

According to many media outlets Gurlitt's art works will most likely not remain in Germany but rather go to the art museum in Bern, Switzerland. Do you regret that the paintings won't stay in Germany?

In talks with his lawyers, we discussed whether Mr. Gurlitt would be willing to give his works of art to a foundation here in Germany. We had the hope and the expectation that he would make his artworks accessible to the public - at least in the mid-term. But he wasn't willing to take that step.

Would you say there's also a positive side to the Gurlitt case? To what extent has he written a new piece of German history?

I do think that he has written a new piece of German history. He has brought a difficult chapter of German history back to our collective memory. And he has made clear that there is no easy solution to these cases, and that injustice doesn't just pass by.
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