The Augsburg prosecutor for the State of Bavaria announced today that in connection with Monday’s agreement with Cornelius Gurlitt, the 1,280 works of art seized from Gurlitt’s apartment in 2012 have been “returned” to Gurlitt. Though it does not appear that the objects have physically changed locations, the state officially lifted the seizure, and now has access to the collection for further provenance research pursuant to the agreement, rather than the compulsory process by which it retrieved them.
The question now is how the review and/or return of the collection will proceed. We know that Gurlitt has agreed to provide unfettered access to the objects for the Task Force to continue its investigation. We also know that after one year, anything not identified as stolen will be cleared and returned to Gurlitt for good. As we observed on Monday, that is a substantial improvement on Gurlitt’s earlier, unilateral definitions of what would be returned as stolen.
But a closer examination of the publicly-available details still reveals gaps wide enough to drive a truck through. For example, has Gurlitt committed to accepting the conclusions of the Task Force? The coverage certainly implies as much, but it is not clear. Also, what exactly has to be accomplished by the Task Force in the first year? Simply raising a question, or making some factual showing? And if the latter, to whom or what will that showing be made? Gurlitt? That is to say, whom will the Task Force have to persuade that a particular piece may have been, or was, stolen.
Finally, what will Germany do if and when the Task Force identifies a work as suspect, but there a are competing claimants? Presumably Gurlitt won’t get the art back, but who will? And who will decide? This is not an academic question. After Gurlitt’s team announced with much fanfare before the deal with Germany was struck, Anne Sinclair as heiress of Paul Rosenberg had an agreement in principle to return Seated Woman by Henri Matisse. Yet it has now been revealed that Germany knew of competing claimants that have since been identified. Who will arbitrate between those claimants?
The publicity around Monday’s deal has also shed some light on the last few months, which to the outside world appeared quite confusing insofar as Gurlitt’s strategy seemed to shift dramatically. For instance, when the “Gurlitt Info” website was first launched, it included references to Gurlitt’s willingness to relinquish works for fair compensation. The Süddeutsche Zeitung reports today on the behind-the-scenes negotiations involving David Toren, who has since filed a lawsuit in Washington, DC against Germany for the Max Liebermann Riders on the Beach (Reiter am Strand). Apparently early this year, Gurlitt’s then-counsel offered to sell the Liebermann to Toren—who recalls the painting from his uncle’s home in Breslau‑for 300,000 Euro, characterizing the price as a discount. Toren says he responded with a word we won’t print here, and a counteroffer: that Gurlitt make a 25,000 Euro donation to the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, “to cleanse his soul.”
There is no question that Monday’s deal begins to put some structure on a situation that had been almost formless since the revelation in November, and which is now more than two years old, dating back to the seizure itself. That structure may forestall additional individual claimants like Toren, but only if there is additional transparency about what the binding commitments are. Claimants will only be patient if they believe that there is an end result they can trust. Part of that depends on the resources devoted to the Task Force, and whether it has the staff required to perform a meaningful review of hundreds of objects in only a year. For starters, the agreement itself should be made public immediately. Whether cynically or morally, that disclosure is the best for all involved.