The second-day stories on the Munich art hoard are filled with contradictory bits of information and many, many questions. Foremost among the questions is why the German authorities have behaved with such secrecy. The news from Focus magazine has unleashed a storm of frustration.
Catherine Hickley reported on the German prosecutor’s news conference where it was revealed no list of works would be made public to hasten claims:
“The legal situation of the artworks is very complex,” Nemetz said at a news conference today in Augsburg. “We don’t want a situation where there are 10 claims for one painting.”
Instead, the authorities have given the responsibility for finding claimants to a Berlin art historian who says there are a number of previously unknown works among the 1500 paintings:
a self-portrait by Otto Dix and a Chagall gouache, said Meike Hoffmann, an art historian investigating the hoard. […] Some of the art dates back as far as the 16th century. It was stored correctly and in good condition, Hoffmann said. It also includes a long-lost Courbet painting that was auctioned in 1949 and a Franz Marc landscape with horses. A Matisse is known to have been seized in France from the Rosenberg family, Hoffmann said.
However well intentioned, this effort does not satisfy most in the restitution community as the Telegraph found out:
“You have to wonder what is behind the extreme reluctance to provide information,” says Anne Webber, of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe. “We have reminded the Bavarian authorities of the need for transparency and requested a full list of the works. So far we have had no response.”
The Telegraph goes on to marvel:
even more bizarre is the way the Bavarian authorities have held on to the information over the two and a half years since the works were first found.
The matter only came to light through an accidental leak to the German news magazine Focus. The examination of the works had been put in the hands of an organisation called the Research Centre for Degenerate Art. Meanwhile, since his detention for tax evasion, but before the seizure of the collection, Gurlitt was able to sell a major work, Max Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer, through a reputable dealer for €840,000 (£731,000).
But the New York Times has a different story on the sale of Max Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer. Alison Smale spoke to Karl-Sax Feddersen who handled the sale for Lempertz who suggests the proceeds were split:
The sale of the Beckmann painting by the Cologne auction house represented what Mr. Feddersen characterized as a relatively rare occasion in which Jewish heirs — in this case the heirs to Alfred Flechtheim, a gallery owner and dealer forced to flee Nazi Germany who died poor in London in 1937 — were able to share proceeds with the owner, Mr. Gurlitt.
The Times also cautions not to jump too quickly to conclusions. Restitution cases are complicated and the works under discussion were taken from many sources:
Any claims that do arise from the Gurlitt case are likely to take years to sort out. German museums whose collections were ravaged by the Nazis are as likely to submit claims as the heirs of Jewish collectors and dealers whose work was confiscated by the Nazis. […]
The Galerie Kornfeld, a gallery in Bern, Switzerland, reported by Focus to have been the source of the cash found on Mr. Gurlitt on the train in 2010, denied having any dealings with him since 1990. Back then, the Galerie Kornfeld said in a statement, Mr. Gurlitt got 38,250 Swiss francs from selling works on paper by artists whose work was confiscated by the Nazis in 1937 as “degenerate.”
Hildebrand Gurlitt had acquired the works his son sold in 1990 “for cheap money in the years after 1938,” the Kornfeld gallery’s statement said. Cornelius Gurlitt never declared that he inherited the works upon the death of his mother, Helene, in 1967, the gallery said. (Hildebrand Gurlitt died in a traffic accident in 1956.)
The Bern gallery said Eberhard Kornfeld, who runs the gallery, was not available to speak to a reporter by phone. His gallery’s statement did not provide details of past dealings with Mr. Gurlitt, but emphasized how carefully one must distinguish between confiscated art and art that was acquired legally, even if the acquisition now seems to have been strange or made under duress. These works “are freely available for purchase to this day,” the statement said.
Finally, ABC News interviewed an expert who warns that the hoard might not be as valuable as assumed:
“We don’t know how many of the 1,500 works are ‘degenerate’ works or looted by the Nazis,” said Christoph Zuschlag, an expert on “degenerate art” at the University of Koblenz. “So we need to examine each piece individually.”
He cautioned against overestimating the value of the collection before it had been thoroughly assessed. “We need to see whether these were originals or prints,” he told The Associated Press.
He noted that of the 21,000 pieces of “degenerate art” seized from German museums in or shortly after 1937, two-thirds were prints while only one-third were originals.