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Gurlitt Saga Continues: U-Turn or Rotary?

By Steffanie E. Keim, Esq. 

Children should not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. Sometimes it gets difficult to determine where mistakes of the parents end and new mistakes, those by their children, begin. The international art community is continuing to look at the Gurlitt saga with great interest, not the least because of the mistakes that have been made in handling the art collection that Cornelius Gurlitt inherited from his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, the German art historian and art dealer who traded in “degenerate” and other art during the Nazi era, but also because of the glacial pace the entire process by the authorities has taken. More than 1,000 works of art were seized in the Munich apartment of art collector Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012 and the ongoing controversy surrounding the case has been widely publicized and reported on since November 2013. (See our original report; as well as an update

Now, there seems to be some new movement in the controversy regarding Gurlitt’s art collection. The German television news service Tageschau reported that Christoph Edel, the court appointed custodian of Gurlitt announced that his client plans to return all works of art which have been stolen or looted from Jewish owners. Concerned observers, including Nicholas O’Donnelle, a litigator and editor of the Art Law Report have already asked who will draw the line between what constitutes “stolen” and “looted” works and those that were just taken or sold under duress.

An agreement in the ongoing negotiations with the descendants of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg regarding the return of the portrait “Sitzende Frau” (Sitting Women) by Henri Matisse, which is valued in excess of $10 million, and is in custody of the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Augsburg, is expected shortly.  This work of art was looted by the Nazis and was part of the art collection of Herman Goering before it eventually came into possession of the Gurlitt family.  Rosenberg himself and his heirs have pursued the restitution of Rosenberg’s art collection since 1945 and been able to reclaim and re-purchase scattered pieces from his pre-war collection.

According to Edel, further restitution can be expected in the coming weeks as Gurlitt has apparently expressed that he has no interest in retaining art works which have been looted and has given the custodian full discretion regarding the return of works which are verifiably looted. Dr. Hannes Hartung, who had been in charge of negotiating possible restitutions was relieved from his mandate on 26 March 2014, with immediate effect (as reported by the Wall Street Journal on 28 March 2014 by Edel) and future claims are to be are directed to Gurlitt’s court appointed custodian Edel.

In connection herewith it has also been announced, that the collection found at Gurlitt’s Salzburg house, which was initially estimated to contain sixty works is now estimated to contain 238 nineteenth century and classical modernity works, including oil paintings, drawings and sculptures by Monet, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, Toulouse- Lautrec, Liebermann and Cézanne as well as long missing painting by Jean Desire Gustave Courbet “Portrait of Monsieur Jean Journet” (1850). The art trove has been removed from Gurlitt’s Salzburg house at Carl-Storch-Strasse 9, which was listed as his main residence with the registry office and were he resided for many years, and where he and his art work went as unnoticed by his Salzburg neighbors and galleries as he has been in Munich, where he lives in an apartment, which he shared with his mother until her death.  The Salzburg home has been uninhabited and neglected for years, as were the paintings, drawings and sculptures hidden inside.  The art works, some of which are in poor condition have been removed from the premises for safekeeping and cleaning and are currently stored at an undisclosed location in Austria.

Gurlitt art works stored in secret location (still from the news reel).
Gurlitt art works stored in secret location (still from the news reel).

Gurlitt’s statements and actions continue to be ambiguous and even contradictory.  While he has given a group of journalist access to the art trove and allowed for filming and photographing of some works he continues to refuse to release a list of the collection found in his Salzburg residence.  Although he has vowed to return stolen or looted art works, Gurlitt currently insists on retaining experts himself to research the provenance of the works discovered in Salzburg and promises to publish the findings.  However, the identity of the experts, the timing of their retention, and when the results of such provenance research would be released to the public remains unclear and would be entirely in Gurlitt’s discretion.

Rüdiger Mahlo, the representative of The Jewish Claims Conference in Germany and other Jewish organizations have requested that independent researchers determine the provenance of the works and have insisted that the art trove be made public so Holocaust survivors or their heirs can file claims.

The reactions to and assessments of Gurlitt’s motives in agreeing to return stolen and looted artworks to the heirs of the rightful owners are polarized, as some believe that it might be an expression of goodwill while others believe he is yielding to public pressure or that he may not be as forthcoming as he claims to be since by controlling the process he may very well be controlling the outcome.
It remains to be seen if actual progress is being made in this case or whether it is merely the debate that has shifted from Gurlitt questioning whether he should return any works of art to his pledge to return works of art he considers stolen or looted.  As the story continues to unfold, the chain of events demonstrate that predicting Gurlitt’s next steps remains as elusive and unknown as the man himself and his collection have been for the past decades. For now the collection found and seized in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment in March 2012 demonstrate the contrariness of Gurlitt – while part of the collection has been digitized and posted on the German website, it is being juxtaposed by charges filed by Gurlitt claiming the illegal seizure of this collection.

Senior Public Prosecutor in Augsburg, Reinhard Nemetz has made clear however, that while cooperation and reparation by the suspect are being taken into consideration, the investigation will continue and that no plea bargain will be accepted in exchange for restitution of art works.

Postscript: The public rediscovery of the Gurlitt collection raised many questions about how German civil and criminal laws deal with restitution matters. Further, the ongoing search for thousands of missing works has even prompted a new wave of provenance research investigations. Sadly, governments continue to make mistakes when faced with and concerning restitution issues. The Bavarian Department of Justice has admitted to making mistakes in response to the tedious piecemeal handling of the Gurlitt case. Michael Grauel, the Head of the Cultural Committee of the Bavarian Parliament declared that in hindsight things could have been handled differently and better.  While the remarks were introspective, the complexity of the case and the fact that legal authorities are not provenance experts was also noted.  According to Grauel a simultaneous search of the two Gurlitt’s residences, one in Munich, Germany, and the other in Salzburg, Austria, was planned at the time the initial search in Munich took place.  However, the prosecutor’s office in Salzburg denied the German petition for international administrative assistance in the search claiming at the time they received the request that the minimum amount of 100,000 Euros required to authorize such international administrative assistance had not been established.

In a related decision, the Bavarian Higher Administrative Court denied the request for temporary relief from a journalist who had sought information about the Gurlitt collection. According to the order of March 27th, 2014 [Bayerischer Verwaltungsgerichtshof, Beschluss vom 27.03.2014 – 7 CE 14.253], the prosecution in the Gurlitt case will not be “required to hand over a full list of the artworks as well as their dimensions.” since, the public interest does not sufficiently outweigh the confidentiality interest of Gurlitt in his collection and thus does not merit a grant of the temporary injunction. While to-date, less than half of the Gurlitt collection has been digitized and made available to the public via website according to the court the journalist does not suffer unreasonable harm by awaiting a decision in the main proceedings. While this decision certainly is frustrating, since so long as the entire collection is not listed and reviewed by provenance researchers, it will be hard to guarantee that all artworks with questionable provenance will have an opportunity to return to their rightful owners, it is a very fact specific decision and faces the heightened pleading burdens of summary proceedings. This decision however does not preclude a different outcome in the main proceedings or even in a request for temporary relief by a different plaintiff with a legitimate interest (possibly the owner of an art work already listed on the website who may have further claims regarding art works not yet listed.)


About the Author: Steffanie E. Keim is admitted to the bar in New York and Germany and is practicing law and pursuing her interest in art law in New York. She may be reached at 917-669-2514 or

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.