Gurlitt Collection May be Displayed Next Year, Real Progress Still Elusive as Focus Remains on Public Relations

Art Law Report 13 October 2013
By Nicholas O'Donnell

After months of relative inactivity, there was news this week in the saga of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive German man from whose apartments in Munich and Salzburg more than 1,280 objects were seized as part of a tax investigation, objects that came under suspicion of Nazi looting because of the privileged position held by his father Hildebrand Gurlitt.  Unfortunately, the latest news continues a string of public relations efforts that bespeak no real progress as we approach the second anniversary of the public awareness of the story.  Quite unlike the plaudits that were thrown around by many last year (though not by us) concerning Germany’s agreement with Gurlitt’s named heir, the reaction has been appropriately skeptical this time.

Representatives of the Ministry of Culture revealed this week that it intends to display next year some of the works found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt nearly four years ago.  According to Der Spiegel, the exhibition will show works that may have had Jewish owners in the Kunsthalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Art Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany) sometime near the end of 2016.  The office of Minister of Culture Monika Grütters told the Associated Press that the exhibition was intended to show “full transparency” in connection with Germany’s 2014 agreement with the Kunstmuseum Bern, which Gurlitt named as his sole heir and to which he bequeathed his paintings.  That will is still under challenge in court in Munich on the argument that he was not competent to make the disposition at the time he wrote the will.

At the same time, the very Task Force that has been researching the provenance collection is nearing the end of its appointment, with resulting uncertainty.  The Task Force was quickly assembled in early 2014 after the collection was made public.  To date it has identified merely four works that should be restituted, only two of which have actually been returned last I checked.  The agreement between Bavaria, the Swiss museum, and Germany, pledged to have the Task Force continue to research the remaining 1,200 some-odd objects.  Yet in the Bavarian state assembly, the Bavarian Minister of Culture responded to a Green Party question that the future of the commission was open, and “If and in what form the provenance research after December 31 will continue will be advised and decided together by the federal government and the state [Bavarian] government.” (my translation).  “If” does not mean “will,” which begs the question of what happens if the Task Force members go their separate ways.

These developments are a depressing combination.  The statement accompanying the disclosure of the exhibition plans made vague references to imminent conclusions, but that is hard to take to the bank.  As Green Party representative and cultural spokesman Sepp Dürr (a persistent critic of Bavaria’s handling) said with regard to the uncertain future of the Task Force (again my translation), “The damage could be great. . . .What is clarified is essentially nothing.  The Task Force was in the end just an alibi event.”

Strong words came from the other side of the Atlantic, too.  World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder told Spiegel that (my translation): “We are disappointed.  When the Task Force was erected in 2013, many people, myself included, were optimistic.  We hoped for quick results.  Yet the work of the Task Force is still far from being completed.”

Given the attention that the Ministry has devoted to its disastrous proposed revision to the cultural property law, it is not entirely surprising that it has walked into another PR failure while not paying attention.  Yet at the same time it is revealing, because going on its third year, the Gurlitt saga has always been more about PR than substance.  An exhibition with so little yet accomplished would merely underscore that unfortunate conclusion.
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