Kunstmuseum Bern Blames Gurlitt Restitution Delay on Will Contest, Claimants Are Having None of it

Art Law Report 18 February 2015
By Nicholas O'Donnell

We recently discussed how the will contest concerning the will in which Cornelius Gurlitt left his estate to the Kunstmuseum Bern was complicating efforts to restitute any Nazi-looted works within the collection. Since the will contest, in and it itself, certainly seemed plausible, the resulting effect it could have on returning questionable works was not hard to see.

Two developments today bring that back into focus. First the museum itself went so far as to issue a press release taking that very position. The press release reads, in part:

At its last meeting, the Board of Trustees of the Kunstmuseum Bern categorically resolved that it will establish a “Gurlitt” research body and defined its tasks and structure. However, this decision can only first be implemented when the pending application of Cornelius Gurlitt’s cousin for a certificate of inheritance has been probated in Munich. The Board of Trustees regrets this delay, in particular because it will impede the settlement of restitution cases that have already been clarified and endorsed by the Kunstmuseum Bern, but the circumstances are beyond its control.

Read a little closer, however. The statement does not say that works cannot be restituted until the will contest is over. It basically says that the formation and tasks of the research group itself cannot even begin until the will contest is over. If that is indeed the approach, the will contest certainly provides no justification for it.

Not surprisingly, at least one set of claimants responded swiftly. Recall that to date only three works have been identified definitively as Nazi loot to be restituted: Seated Woman by Matisse, once owned by Paul Rosenberg, Two Riders on the Beach by Max Liebermann, once owned by David Friedmann in Breslau and claimed by his nephew David Toren, and a drawing by Carl Spitweg once owned by Henri Henrichsen. Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International, who represents the Rosenberg family, told ArtNet by e-mail:

An agreement has been signed between the family of Uta Werner and the Rosenberg heirs which represents an unconditional renunciation of any interest in the Rosenberg Matisse.   This agreement now removes any impediment to immediate restitution of this looted work and places the burden squarely on the Kunstmuseum Bern and the Bundesregierung to back up their words with action.

The purpose of this Agreement is to counter the recent claim by the Kunstmuseum Bern that Uta Werner’s challenge to the Gurlitt Will is causing procedural delays. The Kunstmuseum Bern, the German Probate Court, and the German Ministry of Culture and Media have all publicly stated that Nazi-looted works of art contained in the Gurlitt hoard will be returned. To these assertions, we can now add Uta Werner and her family who consent to the restitution of the Rosenberg Matisse. We have had enough of the finger pointing in this case and with this universal consensus of heirs and potential heirs to the Gurlitt pictures, we expect an expeditious restitution over the next few weeks.

This could scarcely be clearer. The will contest is no justification to delay restitution, and it is certainly no justification to delay even beginning the process.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024