The Display of Plundered Art
Cornelius Gurlitt passed away in May 2014, aged 81, and is well known amongst the art community for his vast collection of famous works of art ranging from Chagall to Picasso. A recent article in the Guardian highlights the storied controversy surrounding Gurlitt’s estate and the steps taken to comply with his Will.
Much of Gurlitt’s famed art collection was passed down to him by his parents and grandparents who allegedly obtained much of the artwork by Nazi theft during World War II. In 2012, during a tax investigation, German customs officials discovered over 1,000 pieces of art worth an estimated 1 billion euros.
According to the Wall Street Journal, while on his deathbed, Gurlitt apparently signed a Will bequeathing his estate (including the artwork) to a small museum in Bern, Switzerland, the Kunstmuseum Bern, on the condition that the museum take steps to determine which works had been stolen by the Nazis and to return those pieces of art to their rightful heirs. Apparently the choice of a foreign institution was made on the basis that Gurlitt felt the German government had treated him unjustly.
It appears that in the event the museum declined the collection, it would pass to Gurlitt’s distant relatives. Concern arose that in the event these relatives beneficially received the artwork, it would be difficult to ensure they complied with Gurlitt’s instructions for restitution. As such, pundits urged the museum to take on the task to ensure that the research into the artwork was done professionally and responsibly.
The museum has since accepted the artwork, with sorrow, and is showcasing Gurlitt’s pieces in conjunction with a second museum in Bonn, Germany, the Budeskunsthalle. Although the showcasing in Bonn seems contrary to Gurlitt’s request for a foreign museum, the museum is nonetheless following Gurlitt’s most prominent wish to ensure stolen artwork is returned.
Proceedings were commenced by the distant relatives to challenge the Last Will on the basis that Gurlitt was not of sound mind when drafting the Will. A successful Will challenge would result in the artwork passing to them. The proceeding was dismissed by a German Judge, while an appeal remains pending.
I find Estates intertwined with famed art to be an enjoyable topic to research and read, as per my prior blog about the 2015 movie, Woman in Gold. Perhaps though, it’s just an excuse to admire such beautiful artwork, with Gurlitt’s collection being one of the best.