Many of us will recall the astonishing reports that appeared in November 2013, concerning an ‘unknown’ art collection that had been ‘found’ during a search of an unremarkable 5th floor apartment in a suburb of Munich.  The apartment was home to a reclusive Cornelius Gurlitt, whose existence had barely registered with the German authorities.  Yet along with his hoard of food and other possessions were some 1400 works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and other notable 19th/20thC artists (with an additional 238 works stored in his house in Salzburg).  Alarm bells immediately rang, had these artworks been looted or confiscated during WWII?  Their value was estimated as at least one billion Euros. 
While sensational stories about Gurlitt’s lifestyle and the value of the ‘hoard’ occupied much of the news media at the time, it is now the complex legal and ethical debates which keep this story very much in the news today.  The UKRG welcomed Alexander Herman from the Institute of Art and Law to outline the history of the case (no element of which is without complication) and bring us right up to date, in anticipation of a key decision at the end of this month.
In 2010 Cornelius Gurlitt was stopped, and found to have 9000 (undeclared) Euros in his pocket. This led to a customs police search of his home in February 2012, at which point a ‘hoard’ of artworks was discovered and subsequently seized.  News of the find and behind-the-scenes investigations were kept from the public until stories began to creep into the press during late 2013.  Cornelius Gurlitt himself died in May 2014, having reached an agreement to cooperate with the authorities in the return of any Nazi war-looted works from the ‘hoard’. However there was a final twist to the tale in that Cornelius had willed his entire collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern, an institution with which he had no previous known connection.
Following the seizure of his collection in 2012, a taskforce had been established to investigate the provenance of the works Cornelius had inherited from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. Prior to the war Hildebrand (who had Jewish ancestry), had been dismissed from the directorship of the Zwickau Museum and had taken up as an art dealer, becoming involved in the purchase of artworks from their Jewish owners, often before they fled Germany.  He also became one of four ‘approved’ dealers for the planned Führermuseum in Linz, who could purchase and sell-on so-called ‘degenerate art’ seized by the Nazi state.  It seems that Hildebrand did not always sell on the works, as much of the ‘hoard’ was made up of listed ‘degenerate art’ works. 
Alex concluded by outlining the key considerations in this case:

·        Why the hoard wasn’t ‘discovered’ before 2012 as works from it had been lent within Germanyand also to the USAduring the 1950s?

·        Had the German authorities acted correctly given that Gurlitt was originally only suspected of a customs violation? Did the authorities have the right to seize his property and to hold it for nearly 2 years?

·        Can or should the son be held guilty for any alleged crimes of his father? Could it actually be proven that his father had committed any crime?

·        Under German law, even if an object is stolen, the limitation period of 30 years starts to run, thus favouring the possessor rather than any claimant. The Bavarian Government tried to amend the law so that ‘lost’ property would not be covered, so long as the property had not been acquired in good faith. However would heirs to the original owners be able to demonstrate that Cornelius Gurlitt did not own the works in good faith? Was Gurlitt aware of his father’s past associations as he was only 12 when the war ended? It is almost impossible to prove the lack of good faith or, given Hildebrand’s actions, how the works came to be taken.

·        Gurlitt had said he would give works back to any rightful heirs, so why change the law? But this also gives rise to issues around the burden of proof, how would heirs demonstrate a rightful claim? Were the works ‘stolen’ or rather were they sold under duress? It may be helpful to enact a presumption that any sales were involuntary unless Gurlitt was able to prove the sale was completed under free will (almost equally impossible to prove).

·        Will works be returned to rightful heirs by the taskforce (following the agreement with Gurlitt) and the remainder given as the Gurlitt Bequest to the Kunstmuseum Bern?

·        Is this a dream gift or a nightmare for the museum? The museum will need to account for the provenance of 1600 works of art and they have only 6 months to decide whether to accept the gift or not. A gift cannot, it seems, be varied under German law – so they cannot pick and choose – it is a case of accepting all or nothing.
The Kunstmuseum has to decide whether to accept or decline the Gurlitt bequest by November 26th
Written by Ann Chumbley

Please see the event reports section of the UKRG website for an actual copy of the presentation provided by the speaker for this event.