Lawyers for Cornelius Gurlitt told The Wall Street Journal Friday he is willing to discuss settlements for Nazi-looted paintings found in his trove of some 1,400 works confiscated during a tax evasion investigation by the Germany’s Bavarian state authorities in 2012.
The high-profile Munich collection was discovered in spring 2012, but was only publicized in a November 2013 Focus magazine expose, in violation of the Washington Principles, guidelines Germany has adopted for dealing with Nazi-tainted art.
With potentially $1.4 billion on the line, the dramatic story of shady sales and subterfuge has spurred international interest in art restitution as Germany is facing increased scrutiny in its handling of this and other high-profile cases.
Gurlitt, 81, the son of one of Hitler’s trusted few art dealers, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, is portrayed in German press alternatively as victim and mad recluse. In a lengthy November Der Spiegel interview, he affirmed unwillingness to discuss the ownership of his collection, saying, “When I’m dead, they can do with them what they want.”
In what appears to be a reversal, attorney Hannes Hartung, who was hired in December, told The Wall Street Journal last week that Gurlitt is ready to “take responsibility.”
Although art restitution experts have estimated up to 900 works from the Munich trove are potentially tainted (the Journal cites 500), Hartung told the Journal, “There are very few cases that could even possibly be looted art.”
In the aftermath of the Munich find, the Schwabinger Kunstfund, a task force of art restitution experts and art historians, was quickly set up, headed by respected historian Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel. It has begun work on a web-based platform and includes members working from around the world.
An Israeli government eager to play a role in the Munich trove suggested the task force’s two Israeli members, Yehudit Shendar, deputy director and senior art curator at Yad Vashem’s museums division, and Shlomit Steinberg, Hans Dichand curator of European art at the Israel Museum. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a New York-based conglomeration of Jewish organizations, also suggested members Sophie Lillie and Agnes Peresztegi.
Additionally, Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback has proposed a change to the statute of limitations which would allow plaintiffs to seek redress in art restitution cases from World War II that have passed the current 30-year window.
The second reading of the legislation is set for a February 14, 2014, session of the Bundesrat. If approved, it will also be read in the Lower Chamber (Bundestag).
“This would apply to cases of so-called ‘degenerate art’ or Nazi-looted art, when works were taken for example from Jewish owners in the context of their oppression or expulsion by the National Socialist reign of terror,” Bausback, the Bavarian justice minister, said in a statement. ”The condition is that the current holder of the work acted in bad faith, knowing exactly the origin of the item or having clear evidence for it at the time he acquired it.”
A German website reported last week that several German museums are investigating whether degenerate art seized by Nazis during WWII could be among the 149 degenerate art works in the Munich trove.
Friday’s Wall Street Journal article also suggested the art works may be in disrepair and stored in poor conditions, especially the piece that has become the saga’s poster child, Matisse’s 1923 “La Femme assise.”
The oil on canvas painting, which was not properly stored by Gurlitt on a stretcher, is formerly of the Paul Rosenberg collection. Lawyer Chris Marinello from Art Recovery International in London represents Rosenberg’s 94-year-old heir and says he has been in direct contact with the task force since November.
Unlike most, Paul Rosenberg fled the Nazi regime with his archives intact. Marinello told The Times of Israel in December that “as soon as the image [of Matisse's 'La Femme assise'] was released we were able to produce documentation.
“We have a receipt, entry cards when the Nazis entered to loot, we know which Nazi-collaborating dealers handled it, which collecting points. We have affidavits from the family continuing their search, documenting the work is missing… All of which were produced to the task force,” said Marinello.
A spokesman for the Augsburg prosecutor’s office, which handles Gurlitt’s case, told The Wall Street Journal the works are not exposed to direct sunlight and the storage area is temperature-controlled.