Constitutional Expressionism Legal Questions Overwhelm Art Find

French journalist Anne Sinclair claims that Matisse's "Sitzende Frau (Sitting woman)" belonged to her grandfather Paul Rosenberg.
DPA/ Staatsanwaltschaft Augsburg

French journalist Anne Sinclair claims that Matisse's "Sitzende Frau (Sitting woman)" belonged to her grandfather Paul Rosenberg.


Part 2: 'I Did Not Exploit Jews Who Wished to Emigrate'

After the war ended, Hildebrand Gurlitt was placed under house arrest. The Americans confiscated crates filled with artworks that were found in his possession. The occupying forces questioned him repeatedly, and they were aware of his dealings with the Nazis, and yet they eventually released him and returned the artworks.

During the so-called denazification process, Gurlitt denied having cheated Jewish customers. In a written statement, he insisted: "I did not exploit Jews who wished to emigrate. Instead, I tried to help them exchange German pictures for others that were valuable on the international market. I never bought anything from Jews who were deported. On the contrary, I tried to help them as much as I could."

Hildebrand Gurlitt was eventually declared denazified, and everything seemed to have been resolved. In 1948, he was appointed director of the Kunstverein museum in Düsseldorf. A portion of his collection was exhibited in New York in 1956. The catalog includes an image of a drawing by Kandinsky, an artist whose works had been considered "degenerate." Gurlitt apparently continued buying and selling art, but so did other gallery owners who had collaborated with the Nazis, and they were viewed as respected figures.

Besides, dealing in art that had once been confiscated for being "degenerate" was not prohibited after 1945. Most of the avant-garde works that were seized had been state property and were taken from public museums. In other words, the state had stolen from itself, and its museums couldn't insist on restitution later on. As odd as it may seem, the Law on the Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art, enacted May 31, 1938, was not repealed after 1945.

And the looted art, that is, the works that were stolen from their Jewish owners? The Allies returned some works to their rightful owners, and West Germany paid compensation to a small degree in its early years. But the situation is more complex and much more tragic than that. The Nazis murdered many of the owners, while a few managed to escape. Of course, they didn't leave with files containing documents to prove what had belonged to them. At some point, all deadlines to file applications for restitution or compensation expired.

Returning Looted Art to Its Rightful Owner

By the 1950s, dealings in what is now referred to as looted art were common. As provenance expert Monika Tatzkow learned, some auction houses noted in their catalogs that the previous owners of the art had been victims of the Nazis, "presumably to enhance the value." Suddenly the name of a Jewish collector was worth something again. On the whole, people were interested in the authenticity of the artworks, not their past.

A debate unfolded in the 1990s that ended in the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. Germany agreed to examine the art collections of its state-owned museums and, in cases of looted art, return the works to their rightful owners, even if the statute of limitations had expired. But efforts to do so remained cursory. It was only in 1998 that Germany began to more seriously consider the moral issues involved in the way it dealt with its art collections. At that point, Hildebrand Gurlitt had been dead 40 years and his widow Helene 20. Cornelius Gurlitt was in his mid-60s and had apparently made it his life's work to keep his collection hidden.

Contrary to widely held views, the Bavarian Justice Ministry, which must now justify the seizure of the Gurlitt collection, is not assuming that third-party claims are necessarily beyond the statute of limitations. To be on the safe side, the ministry is examining whether limitation periods should be extended in cases of doubt. If they were, it would be a sensation.

The authorities are also stressing that the heirs of the true owners must present evidence. Their attorneys will attempt to track down documents, catalogs of the artists' works in which owners are named and letters from gallery owners. But such evidence will not always exist, leading the attorneys to raise other questions, such as whether Hildebrand Gurlitt purchased individual works from the Nazis or took them on commission. In the latter case, he would never have truly owned the artworks. Questions will also be raised as to whether the family acted in good faith after the war, when Hildebrand Gurlitt, and later his wife, claimed that all records had been burned.

A Private Person

Conversely, an attorney for Cornelius Gurlitt could argue that his client had acquired everything in good faith, and that he, like so many others, had believed that his father -- for whom a street was named in Düsseldorf in 1965 -- was a man of integrity and, therefore, hadn't known better, despite old lists of names that were apparently found in his apartment. In that case, would the entire collection be returned to him?

How could this scenario be explained to the heirs of the Jewish attorney Fritz Glaser, who apparently have a claim to at least 13 works, or to the well-known French journalist Anne Sinclair, a granddaughter of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg? Her attorney says that Sinclair has documents that clearly prove that at least one of the paintings, a Matisse, was part of Rosenberg's collection.

Gurlitt, with whom the attorneys will have to negotiate, is a private person. This makes everything more complicated, and it requires a more aggressive legal approach than that taken with museums, which are somewhat obligated to return artworks, because of the Washington Conference. It's possible that each of the 590 works currently suspected of being looted art will turn into a court case, leading to a process that could take years.

In the week before last, after revelations had emerged about the art discovery, there was a meeting of an unofficial crisis team from the relevant government agencies. The large contingent included representatives of the Finance Ministry and the Bavarian Justice and Culture Ministry, a delegate from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and officials with the Federal Commission for Cultural and Media Affairs. The Bavarians, who had made a mess of the matter, apparently tried to blame everything on the officials from Berlin, noting that they had been notified from the start.

Forming A Task Force

The group agreed to form a task force. Under the plan, the collection will be examined by an entire team of experts instead of a single art historian, under the leadership of attorney Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, the former deputy to the state minister for culture. Will all of this be sufficient? Officials at the Foreign Ministry are apparently worried that Germany is humiliating itself and alienating the heirs of victims of the Holocaust.

Rita Kersting, a German curator working at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, recently met with a number of the museum's Jewish patrons in the United States. She says she is asked about the case wherever she goes, and that many are appalled by it. According to Kersting, no one understands "how unprofessionally and with how little sensitivity" the Germans have behaved, and that there is even talk of latent anti-Semitism.

The Jewish Claims Conference (JCC) in Germany, which represents the claims of Holocaust victims and their families, has also asked to be included in the task force. The JCC hopes that Gurlitt will voluntarily relinquish the looted art, eliminating the need for legal action. Officials at the organization's Frankfurt office say that they intend to write him a letter.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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quokka 11/18/2013
1. Preoccupation with assessing criminality
Cornelius Gurlitt may not be a criminal as an inheritor of (some) ill-gotten gains, but nor is he the rightful owner. He has spent his life knowingly denying rightful owners of their (very valuable) property. This is wrong and he knew it was wrong, irrespective of navel gazing legalese. Pass a one-off law legalising the confiscation of the artworks, but do not waste time, money and effort prosecuting him further.
spon-facebook-1626273254 11/18/2013
2. Art Discovery
Nobody is really surprised by the latest unfortunate "turn of events." Hopefully, the "right" thing will be done to resolve this.
Fritz Oz 11/18/2013
3. ART Quandry
Each individual piece of art has a different story. To assume that they were all stolen is probably wrong. If they were "sold" under duress then there is a chance of returning them to the heirs. However I find it interesting that international jewish "groups" are up in arms over this while Israel allows the continued theft of palestinian land. Hypocracy at its best!!!
peskyvera 11/18/2013
4. optional
If Gurlitt hasn't been charged with any crime then all the paintings should be returned to him, until such time as his guilt can be proven.
Evji108 11/19/2013
5. No Personal Rights in Germany?
What kind of justice system can just seize personal property without filing charges, or even a shred of proof or even serious accusation of misdeed. There is no proof that any of this art was stolen but it seems they are operating under this assumption. The art should be returned to him immediately. They have, by now, had enough time to catalog the collection and take photos. Does this poor man have no rights at all? If he was a prominent member of society they would never dared to have done this to him.
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