The family heirs of Cornelius Gurlitt, the German recluse and art collector who was discovered to have a hoard of suspected Nazi-looted art in his Munich apartment, have stated that if they inherit the collection they will immediately return any looted artworks to their rightful owners. The collection has been known colloquially as the “Munich Art Trove,” and was 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.
His son Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in May at the age of 81, left the entire art collection to a Swiss art museum in what was widely seen at the time as a final act of revenge against the German authorities for trying to part him from his beloved paintings.
But the Kunstmuseum Bern is yet to decide whether to accept the bequest, and if it declines, then the ‘Trove’ will revert to Gurlitt’s family heirs.
According to authorities and the Kunstmuseum Bern that a conclusion regarding the museum’s acceptance of the collection had not yet been reached 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. With the matter to be negotiated between the museum leadership and German authorities on November 26th.
The collection includes works by Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Otto Dix, among others; but the hoard could prove to be a poisoned chalice for the new owners; as around 1,600 paintings are believed to have been looted from their Jewish rightful owners by the Nazis, and in a statement released by their lawyer in Munich, the family has made it clear that it wants nothing to do with them.
The Kunstmuseum has promised a similar response and will not be taking possession of any works that have a pending claim. This includes some 300 of the 1,300 works that have arisen particular suspicion due to a restitution claims already in place by families or individuals claiming to be the art works’ rightful heirs. There is also the issue of research already undertaken by the task force led by lawyer Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel assigned by the Bavarian government to check the provenance of the collection’s works.
But an additional motivation for the family regarding restitution of any looted art is that some of Gurlitt’s heirs are themselves Jewish. The Gurlitt heirs promised further investigation of the artworks to determine which were looted, and said all looted artworks would be returned to their rightful owners “immediately and without anything in return”.
The Kunstmuseum Bern is to make a decision on whether to take the collection on November 26, and has refused to confirm a report in Switzerland’s Sonntagszeitung newspaper that it is preparing to accept Gurlitt’s bequest.
Finally Ronald Lauder, The head of the World Jewish Congress, warned the museum not to accept the ‘Trove’; telling Germany’s Spiegel magazine it would “trigger an avalanche of lawsuits”.