Germany has apparently decided to postpone its ill-conceived plans to exhibit the hundreds of works of art that it still holds from the trove seized from the late Cornelius Gurlitt. This decision was announced as a date was set to hear the latest stage of the challenge brought by Gurlitt’s cousin Uta Werner to the will that Gurlitt wrote in the last weeks of his life, leaving the entire collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern. As the Gurlitt fiasco trudges through its fourth year, this move is emblematic of the too little too late approach that has characterized the entire affair.
As is well known, Germany has restituted only two known works, a Matisse Seated Woman and Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach, and has identified three others as looted art (but not returned them, even to identified heirs). It issued a “final” report of the designated Task Force in January that served mostly as an occasion for manufactured positive press for Minister of Culture Monika Grütters. The report was anything but final, and had not even been shared with some members of the Task Force before it was published in their name. As before, the Task Force continues to research the provenance of the collection in some respect, but with no known timetable or public transparency—most notably with regard to Hildebrand Gurlitt’s business records.
The conception of the now-delayed exhibition was supposedly to clarify the provenance of the remaining items. It is still hard to understand how this was believed to improve the state of affairs. Yes, hanging the objects in a gallery would make them physically accessible, in theory, to a wider audience. But heirs and families do not need the opportunity to travel thousands of miles to gaze on objects of whose connection to their ancestors they may presently be unaware or unsure. They need the information available to connect the objects to the people from whom they were taken, if they were taken. It is another example of resources diverted for show—literally—over substance.
Would that the delay meant that those resources might be properly devoted, but they will not. The Ministry will simply await the next opportunity to present the illusion of transparency as cover for just the opposite. It had least had the good sense at long last to stop treating the bequest to Bern as inevitable when a court challenge to it is still pending. A hearing on the competing expert opinions about Gurlitt’s testamentary capacity has apparently been set for September 27, 2016. As the always- perceptive Jörg Häntzschel and Catrin Lorch noted in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Süddeutsche Zeitung(my translation):
Apparently it was hoped that by means of a host of intelligence the large gaps in knowledge that have remained after the two-year work of the Task Force could be closed. In fact, the impression arises that it is a new attempt to draw a final flourish under the scandal of the “Schwabing Art Find.” It also threatens to end in a fiasco.
The view here is that it has been just that for quite some time.