Lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell is keeping tabs on the German papers to explain the latest twist in the Gulitt case, the family’s offer to do the right thing with works should the Bern Kunstmuseum bow out of the estate’s gift:
Reports floated this week of what Gurlitt’s heirs-at-law might do in that event.
As has often been the case, coverage diverged sharply between English and German. Several articles appeared in English reporting that the attorney for the family of what appears to be Cornelius Gurlitt’s first cousin. Hildebrand Gurlitt, the dealer with rights to trade in “degenerate art” had a brother Willbald, whose wife was reportedly Jewish. As a result, the English-language articles posited, the family had pledged to return anything that had been looted “immediately and without anything in return.” Left unsaid (and not terribly surprisingly, given that it was a press release) is the important question of looted according to whom.
Interestingly, however, the German headlines focused on a different part of the family’s statement: art subjected to the “degenerate art” action but not looted from individuals. One of the historical chapters that the Gurlitt story revived was the role of German museums in the Nazis’ targeting of disfavored art. When the Degenerate Art Action declared that such things could no longer be sold except by approved dealer (like Hildebrand), they also looked at the country’s own museums, which contained significant Impressionist and Modernist collections. These, too, were targeted and sold on the international market, with the proceeds going the Nazi state. Many of the works—as many as 460—in the Gurlitt trove may belong in this category, rather than “looted” art from persecuted individuals. What should happen to that art?