April 7, 2014
"Germany and Bavaria have not explained why they kept their discovery of Nazi-looted art secret for almost two years." — from a lawsuit filed in US District court, Washington DC.Investigators searching for art looted by the Nazis have discovered a hoard of more than 200 artworks stashed away at a house in Austria belonging to Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of German looted-art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt.
Confusion reigns over who actually has the legal right to negotiate the return of these or any other items in Gurlitt's collection. While German authorities argue that they -- not Gurlitt -- are the ultimate arbiters of the artworks, Gurlitt argues the government had no right to seize the collection in the first place. He notes he has not been charged with a crime, and in any event, the statute of limitations for items looted by the Nazis expired in 1975.
The find, which was revealed on March 26, comes in addition to the sensational trove of nearly 1,400 works of art previously discovered at Gurlitt's apartment in Germany in 2012.
Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, inherited the collection—estimated to be worth €1 billion ($1.35 billion)—from his father, who helped the Nazi regime hoard art plundered from Jews during the Second World War. Hildebrand Gurlitt is believed to have acquired many of the works in the collection at a pittance from Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.
Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (center) visits an exhibition of confiscated art deemed "degenerate" by the Nazi regime, in this 1938 photograph. (Image source: German Federal Archives)
All in all, the Salzburg portion of the collection encompasses 238 works, including paintings, water colors and drawings by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among others.
The trail leading to the artworks began in September 2010, when customs officers carrying out a routine check on a train bound for Munich found that Cornelius was carrying an envelope containing a large amount of cash in crisp new bills.
One year later, Cornelius drew attention when he sold a 1930s painting—The Lion Tamer (Löwenbändiger) by the German artist Max Beckmann—through the Cologne auction house Lempertz for €864,000 ($1.2 million). According to art experts, Lempertz has a long history of trafficking in art confiscated from Jews.
In March 2012, during a raid of his apartment in the Schwabing district of Munich, police discovered a stash of 1,379 works of art—sketches, oil paintings, charcoals, lithographs and watercolors—stored behind mountains of canned food.
Although German public prosecutors confiscated the trove, its existence was concealed from the public for nearly two years until November 2013, when an exposé published by the German newsmagazine Focus forced the German government to come clean.
The ensuing outcry over the government's mishandling of the matter led it to appoint a scholarly task force charged with researching the trove and the history of its ownership.
Officially known as the Schwabing Art Trove Task Force (Schwabinger Kunstfund), the group has already returned several hundred items to Gurlitt that have been determined legally to be his. These include works acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt before the Nazis came to power in 1933 or created after the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945.
Of the 970 artworks that remain in government custody, 380 pieces are believed to involve so-called "degenerate art" that the Nazis confiscated mainly from public collections and museums. The remaining 590 items are currently being examined to determine whether they were stolen or extorted from Jewish owners.
The task force is also compiling a photographic database of artworks in the Gurlitt Collection. These can be found at an official German government website called LostArt. The process of cataloguing and authenticating the collection could last for several years.
Meanwhile, Cornelius Gurlitt has created a website aimed at telling his side of the story. Gurlitt has long maintained that his father obtained the works legally and that he would not voluntarily give anything back to the previous owners.
"There are no legal grounds that would compel Cornelius Gurlitt to return the so-called looted art," Gurlitt writes on his website. "In addition, the right to seek the return of looted art has long ago expired since the German Civil Code provides a statute of limitations of thirty years after the first instance of theft," he adds.
But in a press release dated March 26, Gurlitt now says he wants to return any pieces that were stolen or extorted from Jewish families. "If the works in Salzburg or Schwabing should be justifiably suspected of being Nazi-looted art, please give them back to their Jewish owners," he says.
"We are currently working on a restitution policy based on the Washington principles [on Nazi-looted art] that we will rely on in the future as a reasonable and uniform basis for negotiating with claimants. We will apply it just as consistently in cases that likely involve looted art as in those cases that are less clear or not clear at all," the statement adds.
Lawyers for Gurlitt are said to be in talks to return a well-known oil painting—Sitting Woman by Henri Matisse—to the descendants of Paul Rosenberg, a French art collector whose family recognized the work when it was made public in late 2013. The Nazis are believed to have stolen the work from Rosenberg when they looted his art gallery in Paris in 1940.
In a separate claim, David Toren, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor from New York City, filed a lawsuit against Germany on March 5 for the return of a 1901 painting—Two Riders on the Beach by the Jewish painter Max Liebermann—he says was stolen in the late 1930s from his great uncle in Germany.
The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, states: "Every day that Defendants deprive the rightful owners of possession of the Nazi-stolen works of art, they perpetuate the persecution of Nazi victims. Germany and Bavaria have not explained why they kept their discovery of Nazi-looted art secret for almost two years. Nor have they explained why they believed such secrecy would aid, rather than impede, their efforts to determine the artworks' rightful owners."
But confusion reigns over who actually has the legal right to negotiate the return these or any other items in Gurlitt's collection. While German authorities say they—not Gurlitt—are the ultimate arbiters of the artworks, Gurlitt argues the government had no legal right to seize the collection in the first place.
In a lawsuit filed on February 14, Gurlitt contends that German authorities used false charges of tax evasion as a pretext for illegally seizing his art collection and that his property should be returned to him without delay. He notes he has not been charged with a crime and, in any event, the statute of limitations for items looted by the Nazis expired in 1975.
German authorities are now working to forestall Gurlitt with a proposed law—known in Germany as the Lex Gurlitt—that would lift the country's 30-year statute of limitations for certain cases involving stolen property. The bill, submitted on the same day that Gurlitt filed his lawsuit, requires approval from the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel and both houses of parliament.
Although previous attempts to change the law—most recently in 2001—have ended in failure, growing international criticism over Germany's handling of the Gurlitt Affair may provide German lawmakers with sufficient motivation to pass the bill this time around.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.