It was hardly surprising that news that Cornelius Gurlitt was willing to return artworks taken from his apartment in 2012 that had once been taken from Jews spread quickly. What is regrettable is how quickly the headlines seem to have gone viral that he is going—or even willing—to return all of the paintings. Nothing that he or his representatives have said supports that contention. From the New York Times, for example:
Cornelius Gurlitt, the octogenarian hoarder of art plundered by the Nazis, will return paintings in the trove his family kept secret for decades to their original Jewish owners or those owners’ descendants, starting with a well-known Matisse, his lawyers said on Wednesday
That is half of the story, at best, and adopts at the very least implicitly the contention that any art stolen from Jews will be returned. His lawyers have (consistently, at least) maintained that fewer than 50 works, or 3% of the total, were stolen from Jewish families, however. The Task Force, and the original estimation by Meike Hoffmann before the seizure was made public, peg the looted art total as much higher.
The exercise so far is a (successful) click-bait and switch that goes something like this: 1) Gurlitt’s lawyer says something about returning art; 2) Gurlitt’s lawyer refers to a subset of the collection by his own terminology, which 3) materially understates the total, and 4) news reports declare that Gurlitt will return all the stolen art. Don’t be fooled. The Rosenberg Matisse is still the only (singular) work out of 1,280 that he has even tentatively committed to returning. Given the back and forth over the first months of 2014 about his intentions, there is every reason to remain skeptical. Language is certainly an issue, the German papers have been less confused about what he has, and has not said he will do.
By contrast, and as usual, Mary Lane at the Wall Street Journal has the sharpest English-language coverage of the issue (she also wrote the best summary last week of the Guelph Treasure Limbach Commission decision). She noted today on Twitter, “BEWARE Int’l/German reports saying Gurlitt giving art back;not a done deal as he won’t promise he doesn’t want $ sources tell me.”