Task force investigating art trove inherited from Nazi collector achieved 'embarrassing' results

Deutsche Welle 26 November 2015

Since 2013, a task force, soon to be disbanded, has sought to clarify ownership of the artwork found in Cornelius Gurlitt's apartment. Now people are asking: what has it achieved, and where do we go from here?

By pure coincidence, nearly 1,500 works of art were discovered over two years ago in the apartments of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. Some were of high international status and questionable derivation.

In November 2013, in the shadow of the discovery of that sensational collection in Schwabig, a district of Munich, three ministries in the state of Bavaria and the federal government's culture commissioner set up an official task force to clarify the ownership of the artworks found. The announcement met with great interest in Germany and abroad. Many had been appalled to learn that the state attorney's office in the city of Augsburg had kept silent about the accidental discovery for over a year and a half.

Results thus far severely criticized

The state of Bavaria and federal governmental officials promised rapid clarification. Stolen artworks were to be promptly identified and, if applicable, returned to their legal owners or their descendents. Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, head of the task force and a highly regarded legal expert and politician, initially assumed that the open questions would all be clarified within the space of one year.

Now, two years later, Berggreen-Merkel had to answer to critics on Wednesday (25.11.2015) at the Bavarian Parliament. Several media outlets have declared the results of her international team a failure. The newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung" even described them as "embarrassing."

The painting "Femme Assise" by Matisse found in the Gurlitt collection was returned to Jewish art dealer’s heirs

What has been achieved? Berggreen-Merkel's team of researchers has been able to determine the exact provenience of four works, and a fifth was mentioned at the parliament hearing. Regarding slightly over 500 of a total of 1,497 works found in Schwabing and Salzburg, the task force rules out "appropriation as a result of Nazi persecution." Clarifying the origins of the rest has proven impossible. Regarding 104 works, 114 concrete claims and 300 requests from Germany and abroad have been filed with the task force.

Defense and prosecution

In an interview with DW in October 2015, Berggreen-Merkel cautioned against comparing the task force's work with that done in museum stocks or other areas of provenience research. The Gurlitt case, she said, was a "private collection that first had to be researched before one could go to work on the actual task." Noting gaps in documentation, she added, "Provenience research deficits from the 1950s and 60s make it difficult for us today."

The "Süddeutsche Zeitung" countered Berggreen-Merkel's arguments with the statement of an anonymous expert on the task force, who claimed that auction houses are able "to determine proveniences within 48 hours." To this claim, Carsten Felgner, provenience research at the "Kunsthaus Lempertz," a major auction house in Cologne clarifies: "That number is exaggerated. If all the documents are accessible, it sometimes may be possible in 48 hours, but that's seldom the case. In provenience research, it always boils down to the individual cases. The less information available, the more difficult it is to place a work in its context."

As the director of the task force, Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel is at the center of all criticism

Public attention a 'disturbance'

One of the task force's sharpest critics is Sepp Dürr, a member of Germany's Green Party. As the party's speaker on cultural policy in the Bavarian Parliament, he posed difficult questions to Berggreen-Merkel during the state parliament hearing on Wednesday.

"The task force will of course be evaluated on the basis of results," said Dürr. His main criticism, however was aimed at politicians. Rather than acting sensibly, he said, the Bavarian state government raised expectations the task force could not fulfill.

Considered a "disturbance" in the Gurlitt case, the public was left out. "When it was turned over to experts, we called for more personnel and transparency, also demanding that experts at large be included. But action was taken only under pressure and a little bit at a time. Munich's Institute of Art History was left out, for instance, even though it's the city's best authority on stolen art."

Sepp Dürr, the Green Party's speaker on cultural policy in Bavaria

Dürr says that the task force consulted neither Cornelius Gurlitt nor those filing claims, and the way they dealt with Gurlitt was "highly embarrassing." Initially given no legal representative, his property was seized under the premise that Gurlitt was sitting on a "Nazi treasure."

"They always justified that by invoking a kind of emergency beyond legal considerations. With references made to Nazi-looted art, they simply overrode the man. Now, as it turns out, there isn't all that much looted by the Nazis there," added Dürr.

To Dürr, the history of the Gurlitt art discovery and the way it has been managed is symptomatic of how Bavaria and Germany deal with stolen art in general. From beginning to end, no one had wanted to take responsibility. Politicians, for their part, don't really take the issue of restitution seriously, he continued: "I think it's outrageous that in 15 years, the national collections have found only 12 paintings. Noble claims are made, but when it comes down to it, they are very reluctant to part with the pictures."

Magdeburg takes over in 2016

Rage and polemics in the media over the task force notwithstanding, one thing is certain: it is to be dissolved at the end of the year, as planned. Beginning in 2016, the German Center for Lost Cultural Goods in Magdeburg will continue research into the Schwabing art discovery.

Uwe Schneede heads the German Center for Lost Cultural Goods in Magdeburg

Professor Uwe Schneede, director of the center, cautions against hastily condemning the task force before it presents its report in January. "I am utterly mystified at how one can damn research results without knowing them," said Schneede. "It seems to me that research has been done here in a very consistent and professional manner."

High public expectations, he continued, have created a distorted image. "The outside impression is that if more than 1,000 works of art are investigated and only two are restored to their proper owners, something must be amiss. People often don't distinguish between research and restitution. We have nothing to do with the latter, but we do clarify, so that decisions on restitution can be made."

Even if no conclusive evaluation of the task force is possible before its report is published, Schneede has a goal: "It's clear that we will carry the research forth, but in with less personnel, greater efficiency and with more transparency."
© website copyright Central Registry 2023