Art Law Report 23 May 2014
By Nicholas O'Donnell
The attorney for the recently deceased Cornelius Gurlitt, Stephan Edel, told Der Spiegel today that “At the present time, only eight works must be returned from the collection as a result of Nazi persecution,” (my translation). Edel went on to say “Whether further works will follow, must await the results of the ongoing research.”
This naturally caused quite a stir and was reported widely as a statement that only eight works in total were stolen of those found in Cornelius’s Schwabing/Munich apartment in 2012 with connections to his father Hildebrand, but it is more likely a carefully-parsed description of the current statement of investigation rather than a claim that only eight works were ever stolen. It is also is consistent with earlier statements by the Gurlitt team. That is to say, Edel seems to be describing narrowly only those works that have been claimed specifically as having been sold or taken under duress for which there is already an agreement to restitute them, or for which the April deal obliges that they be returned.
Readers will recall that at the launch of the “Gurlitt Info” website, the passive-voice “FAQ” (of unknown authorship) that claimed: “Just about all of them [are Gurlitt’s property], with the exception of a few artworks that are suspected to be Holocaust Looted Art (3 % of the whole collection as a maximum)” was hard to credit on its face, since it seemed to define “Holocaust Looted Art” as only those works to which an affirmative claim had been made, at a time when the identity of most of the works was still unknown.
Today’s statement, read charitably, does not challenge that further works might be identified and returned, which in turn will of course depend on the work of the Gurlitt Task Force. It seems more like an update than an assertion.
In both events, however, the statements seem to focus on looting from individuals who might be claimants, leaving open the large question of work taken from German museums as a result of the “Degenerate Art” action. That aspect has received relatively less attention in the United States. As I was discussing this week with a German friend, that may be because German museums are viewed with less sympathy than individual victims, but it is an unresolved issue. There are, after all, a number of U.S. museums with art that was taken from German museums as “degenerate” and then sold into the United States, particularly through Curt Valentin in New York.
Reports have also continued that the likeliest heir with standing to challenge the Cornelius Gurlitt will that named the Kunstmusem Bern as Gurlitt’s sole, cousin Ekkeheart Gurlitt, is displeased at the thought of the collection’s transfer to Switzerland. He was quoted in Bunte as critical of the museum for focusing on the “financial aspect, not on the responsiblity for a review of Nazi looted art.“ Ekkeheart’s lawyer Wolfgang Seybold cast further doubt on Cornelius’s capacity to make that will, so a contest could yet be coming.