Germany will transfer ownership of an art collection of more than 1,200 works, many of which were likely looted from Jewish owners during the Holocaust, to a Swiss museum, potentially paving the way for restitution and stirring debate among Jewish organizations and survivors’ advocates.
The Kunstmuseum Bern [KMB] announced it will reluctantly accept the trove, popularly known as the Gurlitt collection, during a press conference on Monday in which the institution set out the guidelines to which it will adhere to insure that it will not take ownership of works certified as looted.
The collection of paintings, sketches, and sculptures, worth millions of Euros, was discovered by German tax authorities in Munich during a 2012 raid on the homes of recluse Cornelius Gurlitt, who inherited the collection from his father, who was ordered by Hitler to buy and sell so-called “degenerate art” to fund Nazi activities during World War Two.
Immediately prior to his death in May, Gurlitt willed the collection to Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Bern, which subsequently indicated that, if it should accept the art, it would abide by the a set of guidelines regarding the handling and return of looted cultural works.
Jewish organizations and lawyers for the various estates claiming works within the collection were divided in their response to the possibility of the museum taking the work in the days leading up to the announcement.
Advocates of the transfer, such as Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, and Christopher A. Marinello, an attorney who represents one of the families looking to recover art discovered in Gurlitt’s home, indicated that the art being willed to the Kunstmuseum could potentially result in an expedited restitution process.
Following the announcement, Marinello reiterated his previous support for the move, telling The Jerusalem Post he was grateful for the commitment of the museum to the Washington Principles.
“We hope now for the expeditious return of all looted works in the Gurlitt bequest to their rightful owners,” he said.
Others, such as Mel Urbach and Markus Stötzel, restitution lawyers who have also been involved in the case, were less welcoming of the museum’s decision, telling the Post that while it was accepted with joy in some circles, it still fell short of moral justice.
“Under Allied Law 59, all transfers after the Nazis came to power in 1933 were highly suspicious,” the pair said in a joint statement. “Jews were immediately degraded and abused, and forced to sell to people like Gurlitt.
These tainted funds were then used to amass an art fortune, an illegitimate Nazi collection that was hidden from the world since the Holocaust.
Now that it has been found, the collection belongs in the home of the Jewish nation [Israel] from whom it was robbed, along with everything else. It was built upon their suffering.”
The museum, for its part, has pledged to make sure that it accepts no work deemed to have been stolen.
“This wasn’t an easy decision for us and there were no shouts of joy,” said Christoph Schaeublin, president of the museum’s board of trustees, admitting that the museum had to be persuaded by German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters.
“Any works of art deemed to be looted art or even considered likely to have been looted art will never darken the doorstep of the [museum]” and, in fact, will “not even touch Swiss territory,” he added.
“We will do everything in our powers to return art looted by the Nazis to the descendants of the Nazi regime’s victims as quickly as possible,” said Gruetters.
According to the agreement among the museum, the German federal government, and the state of Bavaria, the works will remain in Germany while a government-sponsored task force continues to investigate the provenance of the individual artworks. If a work is found to have been looted, the German government will return it to its rightful owner. If the owner of a specific work is not found, then it will be displayed in Germany and the piece in question will be listed on the lostart.de website to provide any heirs the chance to learn of its existence.
The museum will likewise work on determining the origins of the artworks contained in the collection and should Germany be unable to decide with “sufficient clarity” if a work is looted, the museum will have discretion whether to accept it or not.
“Works that the task force finds are not Nazi-looted artworks will be turned over to the KMB, which will bear sole responsibility for them from that moment on. The same will apply to works that, in the absence of a rightful owner or in the absence of conclusive results by the task force, are exhibited, if it is proved by the end of 2020 that the works are not Nazi-looted art. Otherwise the KMB will surrender all its claims to these works after the end of 2020,” the agreement stipulated.
The deal sets up conflicts of interest between the parties, Bobby Brown, an Israeli restitution advocate, asserted on Monday, stating that the German task force should be the sole body to determine the origin of any of the Gurlitt art trove.
“The KMB will have a clear conflict of interest if their research contradicts the position of the task force. Any questionable art or Holocaust looted art, in which the rightful owners have not been found, should be exhibited on a priority basis in Israel,” he said. “This is not only in order to pay a moral debt, but also by exhibiting in Israel (with the proper explanations) it will increase the chances that the rightful owners will be found! In cases where items go to court the Federal Republic of Germany should fund court costs for those artworks in which the task force believes that the plaintiffs have the basis for a legitimate claim.”
Some critics seem to have been won over by the museum’s agreement with Germany over the disposition of the art.
Despite stating strong opposition to the museum’s acceptance of the collection over the weekend, the American Jewish Committee changed its tune on Monday, with Rabbi Andrew Baker, the organization’s director of international Jewish affairs telling the Post that, “What is most important is that the international committee established by Germany will continue with its work to determine the provenance of this collection and thereby identify – and facilitate the return – of stolen art in the Gurlitt collection. The Swiss museum has already indicated that it will make no claims on these works.”
Sam Dubbin, a restitution lawyer in Florida, however, is typical of those continuing to oppose the decision.
“The rules are too reminiscent of the so-called Washington principles in which countries such as Spain force survivors to go to court to recover art that was admittedly stolen by the Nazis,” he said.
Meanwhile, Deutsche Welle reported Monday that Gurlitt’s cousin, Uta Werner, has gone to court to demand the trove and is questioning her relation’s mental capacity at the time he willed it to the museum.
DW reported Werner has Jewish roots and has expressed her intent to return stolen artworks if she inherits the collection.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany called on Germany to “intensify and expand its investigation of the artworks so that Nazi-looted items can be identified and restituted.”
“The Claims Conference welcomes the readiness of the German government and the Kunstmuseum Bern to restitute all looted artworks to legitimate owners or their heirs in accordance with the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and the Terezin Declaration.Reuters contributed to this report.