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Swiss Museum Close to Accepting Nazi-Era Art Bequest

1970
1945
Wall Street Journal 19 November 2014
By Mary M Lane

Kunstmuseum Bern to Make Final Decision on Gurlitt Bequest in Days; Looted Pieces to Be Returned

REUTERS BERN, Switzerland—A small art museum in the Swiss capital is preparing to take possession of more than 1,000 artworks bequeathed to it by the son of one of Hitler’s main art dealers, unshackling Germany from an embarrassing burden that has weighed on it for a year.

Barring any last-minute legal objections, the Kunstmuseum Bern is expected to decide as early as Saturday to accept the estate of the late Cornelius Gurlitt, according to three people familiar with the museum board’s discussions.

That could expedite restitution for heirs of Holocaust victims, many of whom have seen their claims that the art was stolen from their families languish since the existence of the trove was publicly revealed a year ago. For some works, restitution could happen within days if the museum accepts the bequest.

Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ’s special adviser on Holocaust issues, called the prospect “tremendously welcome and wonderful.”

The collection includes masterpieces by Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Pierre Auguste-Renoir and was amassed during and shortly after World War II by Mr. Gurlitt’s father, a museum director turned art dealer for Hitler. Historians and lawyers have already concluded the trove contains several pieces stolen from European Jews by the Nazis.

The German government has been quietly urging the museum to accept the art, according to the people familiar with the discussions. Since the existence of the trove was revealed a year ago, Berlin has been under pressure from Holocaust victims’ families as well as the U.S. and Israeli governments to return all stolen pieces to their original owners.

Mr. Gurlitt unexpectedly bequeathed his estate to the museum shortly before he died May 6 at 81. According to the will Mr. Gurlittsigned on his deathbed, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, the Kunstmuseum Bern would be required to conduct this research and restitution. Museum director Matthias Frehner has pledged that it would do so if it accepts the bequest.

If the museum were to decline the collection, it would go to Mr. Gurlitt’s distant relatives, who are dispersed in and outside Germany. While his will stipulates that they also return Nazi-looted art, lawyers say there is no way to make sure the multiple heirs conduct such research properly or efficiently outside of going to court, meaning individual cases could drag on for years.

One of the prime pieces is an Henri Matisse portrait of a creamy-skinned brunette that a German-government appointed group of experts has already determined is looted.

That work, which experts say could fetch up to $20 million at auction, was stolen by Nazis in an organized raid from a French bank vault owned by the late art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Heirs to Mr. Rosenberg include Anne Sinclair, a prominent French journalist and the ex-wife of former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

That restitution could happen within days of the museum officially accepting the Nazi-tainted inheritance, according to people familiar with the matter.

The inheritance would also provide a solution for a group of works Mr. Gurlitt kept in a ramshackle home in Salzburg, Austria, including a Claude Monet painting thought to be lost that experts say could fetch around $12 million at auction.

Mr. Gurlitt retained possession of those works because the German tax probe couldn't extend to property held in Austria. International experts including Mr. Eizenstat have criticized Austria for not setting up its own task force to investigate the works held there. The Austrian government hasn’t commented.

When something like this falls into your lap of course you’re going to vote to take it.

—A person at the Kunstmuseum Bern’s board meetings

The Kunstmuseum Bern’s legal team has been researching the artworks’ provenance since the museum was informed of the bequest on May 7. Barring a last-minute legal discovery that could scuttle the deal, the museum’s board of directors will accept the gift at its meeting on Saturday, the last of half a dozen deliberations regarding Mr. Gurlitt’s bequest.

Investigators from the Bavarian city of Augsburg broke down the door of Mr. Gurlitt’s Munich apartment in early 2012 and confiscated his art as part of a tax probe, as Mr. Gurlitt sat shocked in a corner wearing his pajamas.

They held his property for two years without charging him of any crime or providing further information beyond a resource to contact if he considered committing suicide. The seizure became public in November 2013, when the German magazine Focus wrote about the find.

The Gurlitt saga tore scabs off postwar scars in Germany that had never fully healed, originating with the mass-looting of valuable art from Holocaust victims, and exacerbated by what victims’ lawyers and independent restitution experts said was official foot-dragging in working to return those works.

People close to Mr. Gurlitt told the Journal that he decided to give the collection to a foreign institution because he felt Germany had treated him and his father Hildebrand, whom the son viewed as a war hero, unjustly.

However, that was also the German government’s preferred outcome. In accepting the collection, the museum would provide Germany with an exit from the scandal and a neutral place for provenance research to continue, instead of seeing the work scattered among Mr. Gurlitt’s heirs.

People familiar with the discussions of the past six months said Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, the career civil servant appointed to head a German task force researching the art trove, urged the museum to accept it.

Ms. Berggreen-Merkel declined to comment. But her spokesman, Matthias Henkel, said she “has never made a secret of the fact that she would favor the installation of the Gurlitt collection in a public institution, under the auspices of the Washington Principles.”

The Washington Principles are international norms governing art restitution, spearheaded by Mr. Eizenstat, that the Bern museum says it abides by when accepting any donated art.

Much of the delay in accepting the trove has come because the tiny museum needed to secure seven-figure private funding from Swiss donors to be as free as possible of German funding that the museum thought could taint the neutrality of their provenance research, people familiar with the deliberations said.

This was a daunting task for the board members. The museum lacks the financial backing of other Swiss museums like Fondation Beyeler. Unlike European and American museum boards filled with wealthy collectors and art world insiders, the Kunstmuseum Bern’s board comprises local government officials and academics.

These people said the collection’s problematic history also weighed heavily on the discussion.

“It was obvious from the start, and a huge source of angst, that accepting the works would fundamentally change the identity of our museum forever,” said one major decision maker at the meetings.

The Kunstmuseum Bern was once the prestigious home of the Paul Klee foundation and its masterpieces and research, but lost that identity when the foundation pulled out and in 2005 opened its own museum designed by star architect Renzo Piano.

Museums use star paintings like the Klee masterpieces as bargaining chips to trade with other museums for art to create blockbuster temporary shows.

“Either way you’re screwed. Not taking the works still leaves you with no paintings to bargain for exhibitions with. Taking them makes you ’the museum with the Nazi-Gurlitt art,’ ” said an art historian close to the Bern situation.

But for many voting Saturday, the temptation to establish a new identity for the museum overrides any qualms.

“If you had told us before he died, ‘Would you like to deal with the collection of some recluse whose father worked for the Nazis and have that tied to you forever?’ then we would have said ‘No way,’” said a person at the board meetings. “But ultimately when something like this falls into your lap of course you’re going to vote to take it.”

Write to Mary M. Lane at mary.lane@wsj.com



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