German justice officials still hope to negotiate a settlement with Cornelius
Gurlitt – the reclusive son of a Nazi art dealer found in possession of 1,406
pieces of artwork – even after he told a German newspaper that he “won’t
voluntarily give back anything.”
“I hope that this is not going to be the
last word in it,” Hannes Hedke, chief spokesman for the Bavarian Justice
Ministry, said on Monday. Gurlitt’s interview “doesn’t change anything on the
position of the minister,” Hedke said.
The minister, Winfried Bausback,
said last week that he aimed for a “mutual solution” regarding the fate of
Gurlitt’s art trove.
Gurlitt, 80, told Der Spiegel in an interview
published on Sunday that he misses the artwork and does not understand why the
collection – at least 590 pieces are believed to be art looted by the Nazis –
His aversion to accepting a settlement and the complex state
of Germany’s restitution system raises the specter that some – if not all – of
the paintings and drawings will be returned, at least temporarily, to Gurlitt,
art attorneys said this week.
“In regard to the 590 artworks, it seems
very likely that under German law, they do in fact need to be returned to Mr.
Gurlitt,” Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish
Material Claims Against Germany, wrote in an email. Still, he said, “there is a
good possibility that ultimately the 590 artworks will go back to their original
owners or heirs, but with a settlement or settlements with Mr. Gurlitt in which
he receives a fair amount of money.”
Several attorneys representing
claimants said it is inconceivable that the Nazilooted artwork would eventually
end up in Gurlitt’s possession.
But what happens in the interim – a
settlement, a change in German law or individual lawsuits – is an open
Gurlitt has settled with a family of a Jewish art dealer
before. In 2011, he reached a settlement with the heirs of Alfred Flechtheim
after the heirs confronted him with evidence that the painting he tried to sell
was stolen by the Nazis.
Even though Gurlitt has stated he would not
settle, Lothar Fremy, a prominent German art attorney, said his actions could
not be predicted.
“The problem with Mr. Gurlitt is he lives in a
different world,” said Fremy, who is representing the family of a Jewish
businessman whose art was looted. “It’s very difficult to assume what he will do
next. I mean, he just wants to be left alone. [The paintings are] a real
treasure to him.”
A case with such complexity will require large doses of
creativity on the part of the German government and prosecutors, Chris
Marinello, director and founder of Art Recovery International, said. For
example, any criminal charges could be reduced or dropped in exchange for
returning the paintings.
If Gurlitt does not settle, the case would be
propelled into the legal world of art restitution which is in disarray, said Mel
Urbach, a New York attorney representing another family.
“The state of
restitution is in total chaos,” Urbach said.
“Under German law, he is not
bound by any of the treaties that would call for restitution or would call for
some sort of compromise.”
While Germany has adopted a set of
internationally recognized principles regarding the restitution of Naziera
artwork – known as the Washington Principles, signed in 1998 – they do not apply
to art held in private collections.
Urbach is calling on the German
government to use this case as an opportunity to pass new legislation for art
“The German government has to revamp and reexamine this
whole process. This is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the epidemic
we’re facing,” he said. “How many Gurlitts are there out there?” This
uncertainty leaves heirs like Martha Hinrichsen, 65, with few options but to
“Regardless of his needs, there’s no doubt that any paintings
stolen from the Jews... ought to be returned to the rightful owners,” she
But, she added, “I had no conceived notion that was was going to be
simple and easy.”
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