Swiss museum vows new standard in handling of Nazi-looted art

Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of one of Adolf Hitler’s main art dealers, bequeathed the collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern, which has said it will thoroughly research the provenance of each piece of art and promises a transparent process.

Gian Ehrenzeller/AP/file
The Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, announced Monday that it would accept a trove of priceless art bequeathed to it by German collector Cornelius Gurlitt

A Swiss museum agreed on Monday to accept an art collection hoarded during the Nazi era and left to a German recluse, saying that its approach of broad transparency could set a new standard in the handling of Nazi-looted art.

Christoph Schäublin, president of the Kunstmuseum Bern's foundation board, said the decision to accept the artwork was ”anything but easy,” given its controversial origin, according to media reports. The collection was bequeathed by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of one of Adolf Hitler’s main art dealers. 

“Looted art and that suspected to be looted … won’t get on Swiss ground,” Mr. Schäublin told reporters Monday at a joint news conference with German officials in Berlin. He said the museum would undertake extensive research to determine the provenance of the works.

Under an agreement between the Kunstmuseum and the German government, a task force will trace the history of hundreds of works before the museum takes possession of them. As The Wall Street Journal explains:

Works that are suspected of being looted or have already been confirmed will stay in Germany until 2015. If a task force looking into the issue isn’t able to sufficiently determine whether it is Nazi-looted art or not, the Kunstmuseum will have to decide whether it will take the work and would then have to bear the sole responsibility for its decision.

In 2012, German authorities seized 1,280 pieces from Mr. Gurlitt’s Munich apartment while investigating him for tax evasion. Gurlitt's collection includes masterpieces by Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre Auguste-Renoir.

Before Gurlitt died in May, he designated the Kunstmuseum as the sole heir to his once-hidden collection. German authorities maintained custody over the artwork while the museum deliberated whether to accept it.

Historians and lawyers have already determined that the collection contains several works stolen from European Jews by the Nazis, The New York Times reports. Gurlitt’s father amassed much of it during World War II when Hitler commissioned him to purchase pieces for a Führermuseum.

German Culture Minister Monika Grütters said three looted paintings from the collection would be returned to their owners immediately. She said the decision was “a milestone in our attempts to come to terms with our history," the Guardian reports.

Nazi-looted art has long been a contentious issue for museums across the world. In 1998, 44 countries signed the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, “embracing their special responsibility to repair the damage caused by the wholesale looting of art owned by Jews during the Third Reich’s reign,” The Times reported last year.

Now, 15 years later, historians, legal experts and Jewish groups say that some American museums have backtracked on their pledge to settle Holocaust recovery claims on the merits, and have resorted instead to legal and other tactics to block survivors or their heirs from pursuing claims ...

In some of the cases, museums like the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum have tried to deter claimants from filing suit by beating them to the courthouse and asking judges to declare the museums the rightful owners.

With that in mind, the Kunstmuseum’s dedication to finding the rightful owners of Gurlitt’s collection comes as a promising sign within the art world.

But the museum’s decision to accept the collection could be complicated by a cousin of Gurlitt, who has questioned Gurlitt's mental capacity when he wrote the will naming the museum as the sole heir.

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