As the November 26, 2014 deadline approaches by which the Kunstmuseum Bern must accept or reject the appointment as Cornelius Gurlitt’s heir and the bequest of the paintings seized by the Bavarian government on suspicions of Nazi-looting concerns (as well as those in other countries that were not seized), most observers expect the museum to accept the appointment, albeit perhaps with some side agreement with the German government. But what if the museum says no? Reports floated this week of what Gurlitt’s heirs-at-law might do in that event.
As has often been the case, coverage diverged sharply between English and German. Several articles appeared in English reporting that the attorney for the family of what appears to be Cornelius Gurlitt’s first cousin. Hildebrand Gurlitt, the dealer with rights to trade in “degenerate art” had a brother Willbald, whose wife was reportedly Jewish. As a result, the English-language articles posited, the family had pledged to return anything that had been looted “immediately and without anything in return.” Left unsaid (and not terribly surprisingly, given that it was a press release) is the important question of looted according to whom.
Interestingly, however, the German headlines focused on a different part of the family’s statement: art subjected to the “degenerate art” action but not looted from individuals. One of the historical chapters that the Gurlitt story revived was the role of German museums in the Nazis’ targeting of disfavored art. When the Degenerate Art Action declared that such things could no longer be sold except by approved dealer (like Hildebrand), they also looked at the country’s own museums, which contained significant Impressionist and Modernist collections. These, too, were targeted and sold on the international market, with the proceeds going the Nazi state. Many of the works—as many as 460—in the Gurlitt trove may belong in this category, rather than “looted” art from persecuted individuals. What should happen to that art?
This is the issue that got the most press overseas. Monopol, the magazine from which most English-language sources got the family’s statement, reportedthat Wolfgang Seybold (the attorney) stated that those works would be exhibited permanently in a German museum. He added, “The family hopes that the class works of Modernism, that Hildebrand Gurlitt saved from the “Degenerate Art Action” can remain together and be displayed permanently in a German museum.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung has a similar story here. The SZ reminded that these heirs had been quoted back in May as expressing hope that the museum would accept the appointment, but walks that back a little now to say only that they would assume 100% of responsiblity for the inheritence if it comes to that.
This puts an interesting spin on the historical story, in which Hildebrand is portrayed as savior rather than opportunist. But it would certainly be an interesting compromise that might provide a vehicle for ongoing discussion of the issue, rather than see the works disappear into private hands.