Following confirmation by his attorney that Cornelius Gurlitt had left a will, it was further revealed yesterday that Gurlitt had not merely left his collection of paintings with substantial Nazi-looting questions to a museum outside Germany, but that he had named the Kunstmuseum Bern itself as his sole heir. The Kunstmuseum is the oldest museum in Switzerland, with more than 50,000 objects that include works by Vincent van Gogh, Franz Marc and Henri Matisse. The museum responded by releasing a statement that:
Despite speculation in the media that Mr Gurlitt had bequeathed his collection to an art institution outside Germany, the news came like a bolt from the blue, since at no time has Mr Gurlitt had any connection with Kunstmuseum Bern. The Board of Trustees and Directors of Kunstmuseum Bern are surprised and delighted, but at the same time do not wish to conceal the fact that this magnificent bequest brings with it a considerable burden of responsibility and a wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind, and questions in particular of a legal and ethical nature. They will not be in a position to issue a more detailed statement before first consulting the relevant files and making contact with the appropriate authorities.
Several issues come to mind immediately. The first is the museum’s appointment not merely as the recipient of specific property, but as Gurlitt’s actual heir. An heir takes the rights to enforce the estate’s rights (like, most importantly, the agreement with the Bavarian prosecutor). But the other side of that coin is that if anyone else thought that he or should have been the heir (a group that by all accounts would be limited to a cousin once removed), that person could challenge the will itself under German law. Although we can’t opine what will formalities in Germany are, one can easily imagine a challenge by a will made by an ill, elderly man who had exhibited signs of confusion in his later months about exactly what was going on with the collection.
The other issues are the groups of paintings that this appointment will cover. The simplest will be those works that Gurlitt received back free from suspicion from the Bavarian prosecutor. Those will essentially be his to dispose of as he wished.
The next are the paintings found in his Salzburg house and in a property in Bad Aussee, both in Austria. Gurlitt’s lawyers removed them for safekeeping, but they were never seized and are not, as far as anyone knows, subject to the agreement with the prosecutor. So those, too, he could bequeath as he wants it seems.
Those works being examined by the Task Force are the most complicated. One year from now, those paintings not identified as stolen were supposed to be returned to Gurlitt. Presumably that would now be transferred to the Kunstmuseum Bern. But what about those that are not returned, or that are subject to claims? The museum at that point would have to decide whether to press for their return and resist claims from the original owners or their heirs. Even those paintings found in Austria, or returned by the Task Force, may still be subject to claims that the museum will not simply be able to waive away. The museum can only acquire whatever title Gurlitt had, which was obviously far from clear. And, while Switzerland generally allows a good faith transferee to take title regardless of the prior circumstances, the cat is out of the bag as far as these paintings’ history.
The museum’s initial caution is therefore no surprise. After yesterday’s statement, the museum’s Twitter feed (@KunstmuseumBern) confirmed the unexpected nature of the bequest, and tweeted that the foundation’s board would “decide in the coming weeks.” This surprise gift may be one whose administrative complications are far more trouble than they are worth.