Jewish World Congress president Ronald Lauder has publicly threatened the Kunstmuseum Bern with an “avalanche” of lawsuits if the institution accepts the collection of approximately 1,300 artworks bequeathed to it by the late Cornelius Gurlitt – stated in an article published by German weekly Der Spiegel. The museum is currently still in the process of making this delicate decision – whether or not to accept the collection – which includes works by Henri Matisse, Max Liebermann, Otto Dix, and Marc Chagall, among others famous artists.
Gurlitt died on May 6th of this year, leaving the entire collection to the Swiss museum – but nearly 600 works from the collection are suspected to be of questionable provenance, possibly Nazi loot. Those works have been placed on the central register for artworks suspected of having been stolen, Lost Art.
Last month- according to authorities and the Kunstmuseum Bern that a conclusion regarding the museum’s acceptance of the collection had not yet been reached but that negotiations were going smoothly, this was told to Der Bund. The museum instead stated that it was up to its board to decide whether or not to accept the works. According to the Sonntagszeitung, the discussions were not expected to be lengthy – at the time.
The collection has been known colloquially as the “Munich Art Trove,” and collated by Cornelius Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. Gurlitt senior was one of four art dealers entrusted with selling so-called degenerate art during the Nazi regime’s rule. Originally estimated at the value of nearly £700 million – the value has dropped significantly as many pieces are believed to have been looted from Jewish families by the Nazis.
Speaking to Der Spiegel, Lauder warned that if the Kunstmuseum Bern accepts the collection it would “open a Pandora’s box” of legal claims against it by German museums and Jewish heirs of paintings within the collection. “The people in Bern will harm themselves and their country if they take these paintings before their provenance is cleared up. They would become a museum of stolen art,” continues Lauder, according to Reuters.
Now the museum denies previous reports that indicated they had already decided to accept the collection, and went on to explain that the decision was entirely that of the board. However, the terms of a possible agreement – which were leaked by the Sonntagszeitung – would seem to insinuate a go-ahead regardless of legal threats.
The leak stated that the Kunstmuseum would not take possession of any work against which there is currently a restitution claim or about which there is any suspicion of Nazi provenance – according to that unconfirmed proposal; and would instead use permanent loans to return all works that could be tied to other museums or institutions. It added that the entire collection would remain in Germany in case further restitution claims arise down the line.
There appears reason to believe that a decision by the Kunstmuseum Bern to accept the inheritance would in fact be to the benefit of all parties involved, as if the institution does not accept the works, they would likely go to Gurlitt’s distant relatives – As the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported.
Even though Gurlitt, in his final days, expressed a desire that all of the artworks of questionable provenance be returned to their Jewish heirs the paper explains that any such individuals bequeathed Gurlitt’s ‘trove’ would not be bound by the Washington Principles of 1998. This is the accord, which stipulates that institutions found to be in possession of Nazi loot find a fair and equitable solution to return the looted works to their rightful heirs.