The death several weeks ago of 81 year-old Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich, has thrown up further questions over the fate of his recently uncovered “Nazi-looted” art collection. When it emerged last November that thousands of paintings and artworks originally acquired by his late father, a prominent pro-Nazi art dealer, had been impounded by the German authorities during an investigation into alleged tax evasion by Gurlitt, the art world went into shock. Many of the paintings and drawings, including masterpieces by Cezanne, Picasso, Max Beckmann, Matisse and van Gogh, were suspected of having been stolen by the Nazis from their original Jewish owners. Restitution experts specialising in the provenance of works bought or otherwise acquired during the Second World War, demanded a full itinerary of works held by the authorities. That disclosure has been slow, reluctant and selective: the full extent of the cache is still not clear, and in the meanwhile, Gurlitt was found to have amassed further very valuable art collections at his homes in Salzburg and Bad Aussee in Austria.
In the wake of these revelations, Gurlitt declared that these collections were his property, having been left to him by his father who, he claimed, had rightfully and legally acquired them. A special Task Force composed of historians and art experts was set up to examine the provenance of many of the works, and to consider new claims from Holocaust survivors and their families who originally owned the paintings who were beginning to come forward.The Task Force recently agreed to return any paintings not identified as stolen, and declared that their investigation would be completed by spring 2015. Some works had in fact been returned to Gurlitt earlier this year, declared free from suspicion by the German prosecutor. But, mysteriously, the two collections in Austria were removed by Gurlitt’s lawyer for safekeeping: even more puzzling is the fact that none of those works was seized, and nor have they been included in the current investigation ordered by the German prosecutor. The status of those collections remains a mystery.
With Gurlitt’s sudden death, the saga becomes even more bizarre. A few weeks ago, Gurlitt drew up a new will, in which he named the Kunstmuseum in Berne, Switzerland, as his sole heir – thereby bequeathing them his entire art collection. According to the museum, the news “came like a bolt from the blue, since at no time has Mr Gurlitt had any connection with the Kunstmuseum”. In a public statement, the museum, no doubt sensing a poisoned chalice, further said: “The Kunstmuseum…..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….of a legal and ethical nature”.
So, what will become of any art works decreed by the German Task Force to have been looted, or of the rest of the collection – including the two multi-million caches found in Austria – is anyone’s guess. In a final twist, last week a cousin of Cornelius Gurlitt, Ekkehart Gurlitt, a photographer living in Barcelona, stated he will challenge the validity of Gurlitt’s will. His claim is that Cornelius Gurlitt was old, infirm, confused by the glare of publicity and ongoing controversy over his collection, therefore may not have been in his right mind when he changed his will. Ekkehart Gurlitt may be right. Or he may have an eye on the main chance. Only time will tell. Until then, the art world continues to hold its breath.