Christoph Edel, lawyer and guardian for Cornelius Gurlitt, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung today that his client wants to return “all pictures stolen or looted from Jewish possession.” Although this has set Twitter and the Internet ablaze with the news, the statement deserves careful scrutiny in light of Gurlitt’s strategy over the last two months. The likeliest meaning is that Gurlitt intends to return those works that he believes were stolen from Jews—a total he himself put at less than three percent of the 1,280 works found in his apartment, over 900 of which the Scwabinger Task Force has declared to be suspect. Note too that a slight mistranslation has already gotten into circulation. Whereas Edel told the SZ that Gurlitt “wants” to return those paintings, the German conjugation of want (will) was cited as a statement that he will (in English) return them. Not so fast, as they say.
The first work to be returned, according to Edel, is Sitting Woman by Henri Matisse, to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg (who just this week negotiated the return of another Matisse from the Henie-Onstad Museum in Norway). Notably, the Rosenberg/Gurlitt Matisse was taken from a storage depot in Bordeaux where Rosenberg had placed 162 objects for safekeeping—despite Gurlitt’s protestations that his father Hildebrand was uninvolved in the plunder of French Jews.
Edel went on to say that discussions with six (6) claimants were likely to lead to resolution, a total of 40 to 50 works. When the “Gurlitt Info” website went live, its claim that “Just about all of them [are Gurlitt’s property], with the exception of a few artworks that are suspected to be Holocaust Looted Art (3 % of the whole collection as a maximum)” was met with skepticism by anyone paying attention, and, more seriously, seemed to be an arugment that since only that number of works had been claimed—desite the identity of more than half of the collection remaining unknown—that consituted the universe of stolen Jewish property. That contention fails under any scrutiny.
Herein lies the disconnect, or the subtle misdirection. If Gurlitt has agreed to return fifty paintings to Jewish heirs, all the better. But if by declaring that an agrement with six heirs constitutes the entirety of the works stolen from Jewish collections, then that is no solution at all. Nor does it begin to address what amounts to hundreds of works obtained by Hildebrand Gurlitt as “degenerate art” taken from other owners, let alone the more recent find in Salzburg. That is no small thing: SZ, as well as the television networks WDR, and NDR are reporting that the Salzburg find was much greater than previously reported, perhaps including as many as 238 works.