Swiss museum to take ‘Nazi’ art

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Alpsonntag'Szene am Brunnen (Sunday in the Alps ' Scene at the Well) on show in the Bern museum. Picture: Reuters

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Alpsonntag'Szene am Brunnen (Sunday in the Alps ' Scene at the Well) on show in the Bern museum. Picture: Reuters

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A SWISS museum has agreed to accept a collection of long-hidden art from the late German collector Cornelius Gurlitt, saying it will work closely with Germany to make sure pieces looted by the Nazis are returned to their Jewish owners.

Three works in the collection that have already been identified as looted art – by Matisse, Max Liebermann and Carl Spitzweg – will be returned immediately, German culture minister Monika Grütters said.

In tandem with the announcement, Germany published online yesterday the business ledgers of Mr Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, who worked closely with the Nazi regime. The ledgers cover the years 1937-45.

While investigating a tax case, German authorities in 2012 seized from Mr Gurlitt’s Munich apartment 1,280 pieces of art, including works by Picasso and Chagall. The development shocked the art world – many of the works had not been seen in decades and experts feared they had been lost or destroyed.

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Mr Gurlitt had inherited much of the art from his father, a famous dealer who in the 1930s helped the Nazis sell art they considered “degenerate” outside of Germany for cash. Some of the works had been seized by the Nazis from museums, while others were stolen or bought for a pittance from Jewish collectors who were forced to sell.

Mr Gurlitt died in May at the age of 81, designating Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Bern as his sole heir.

A task force already looking into the provenance of the Gurlitt art will now work closely with the museum. Germany will cover the costs and work to return looted art as quickly as possible, Ms Grütters said.

“As part of our special German responsibility toward the victims of the Nazi dictatorship, we want to ensure justice is done not only in the legal framing of the agreement, but also morally,” she said.

Kunstmuseum Bern’s board president, Christoph Schaeublin, said the decision to accept the collection had come only after long, difficult deliberations.

In addition to the works found in Munich, more than 200 were found at Mr Gurlitt’s house in Salzburg, Austria. In the cases where there is any suspicion that it is Nazi-looted art, the Bern museum has the right to decide whether to turn over these works to the German task force. One of Mr Gurlitt’s cousins has also filed a claim on the collection, which a Munich court said would have to be resolved before the art goes anywhere.

Professor Julius Schoeps, a prominent German-Jewish scholar who believes art stolen from his family may be among the Gurlitt collection, said he welcomed Germany’s move to put Hildebrand Gurlitt’s account books online, which he said could help him learn more about his own potential claim.

But Prof Schoeps said the new agreement seemed to make it even more complicated for possible heirs to retrieve their property.

“They didn’t say a word about who we can turn to for help,” said Mr Schoeps, who attended the Berlin announcement. “More and more institutions are getting involved in this; the German government task force, the Bern museum, the Lost Art Database in Magdeburg – I find this very irritating.”

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