Germany still hopes to settle Nazi art case

Heirs weigh options for recovering paintings from reclusive dealer.

November 19, 2013 23:24
3 minute read.
Germany began publishing an online list on Tuesday of works that were discovered in a huge art stash

Nazi art collection 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

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.

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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 – was seized.

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 question.

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 restitution.

“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 wait.

“Regardless of his needs, there’s no doubt that any paintings stolen from the Jews... ought to be returned to the rightful owners,” she said.

But, she added, “I had no conceived notion that was was going to be simple and easy.”

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