How do you solve a problem like Gurlitt?

By Irina Tarsis*

As Hollywood is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of “The Sound of Music,” set in Salzburg, Austria and the public release of “Woman in Gold,” a film based on successful legal actions to recover Nazi-looted art scheduled for release April 1, 2015, the Gurlitt saga continues to permeate the media and the legal scene. The News Wires are alive with the name of ‘Gurlitt,‘ and every related court decision and legal filing is music to our ears.

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Cornelius Gurlitt (1932-2014), was born into a family of artists, art historians and musicians. He was a son of one of the four infamous art dealers who had been involved in sales of “degenerate art” and purchases of works for the Führermuseum in Linz, among other transactions during the Third Reich. In 2013, the story broke that Cornelius, who was under a tax investigation, inherited a large art trove of paintings, drawings and prints, split between his apartment in Munich, Germany and a house in Salzburg, Austria. The insiders of the German-speaking art world, and probably beyond, must have known of the collection, particularly since the 2011 Lempertz auction of the Max Beckmann’s “Lion Tamer,” that was stolen from Alfred Flechtheim during World War II and was consigned by Cornelius Gurlitt.

Having vacillated between refusing to part with his collection and agreeing to allow researchers access to determine provenance of the works, Gurlitt passed away in 2014. Reportedly, he reached an agreement with the German government regarding access to the art; however, in his Will, Gurlitt bequeathed the contested art collection to the oldest fine art museum in Switzerland, Kunstmuseum Bern. Validity of the Will was challenged by Gurlitt’s relative, Uta Werner, who reportedly had promised to make Gurlitt’s documents public.

On March 25, 2015, it has been reported that the German court reviewed the challenge to Gurlitt’s will and ruled it valid.

Only days earlier, in two separate instances, Monika Grütters, Germany’s culture minister as of December 2013, announced that she approved and signed restitution agreements to release two of the paintings, a Matisse and a Liebermann, that have been affirmatively determined months ago as to have been looted from victims of the Nazi prosecution. Matisse’s “Seated Woman” is expected to be returned to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg and Liebermann’s “Two Riders on the Beach” should be sent to the heirs of David Friedman. The agreements are expected to be approved with the Munich court that is in charge of the Will and thus the Gurlitt estate.

After much dissonance and delay, let the next movement in the Gurlitt concerto be more of restitution agreements and release of documents – “these are a few of my favorite things.”

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About the Author: Irina Tarsis, Esq., specializes in art law, provenance research and cultural heritage law. She may be reached at itsartlaw@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: This article presents general information and is not intended as legal advice.

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