The New York Times recently reported that Germany will fund an additional year of research to establish the provenance of art works from the vast collection of the late Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitt was a reclusive Munich art collector who had amassed a collection of 1,500 art works acquired by his father who was a dealer for the Nazis.
The Gurlitt task force appointed by Germany’s culture minister had been established after the collection surfaced in 2013. After a nearly $2 million investigation over two years, it was announced by the task force earlier this year that it had identified the rightful owners of just five of the art works whose provenance was uncertain.
As time passes by with fewer survivors from the Nazi era, it has become increasingly difficult for Germany to carry out provenance research and restitution. The passing of Mr. Gurlitt in May 2014 also complicated the task force’s restitution efforts. In particular, there are two sides to a restitution claim in cases where there is a museum and a claimant, but there is only one side in the Gurlitt case because Mr. Gurlitt is no longer living. As such, German researchers are tasked with the responsibility to conduct essentially flawless, but slow provenance work on the collection.
The task force completed its provenance and restitution work at the end of last year and its report was released in January of this year. The complete report of the task force can be accessed online in German with a summary in English.
The Center for Lost Art in Magdeburg is now tasked with the responsibility for the Gurlitt collection in which a staff of 20 will be expanded, if there is a need. The German culture minister’s total budget for provenance research is about $6.5 million, which is three times more than it was three years ago.
It has been reported that only 30 to 50 of the 1,500 art works from the Gurlitt collection were of exceptional quality and much of the remaining art works include works on paper, drawings, multiples, and prints, and are typically undocumented.
Germany’s culture minister intends to exhibit the works from the collection in Bonn sometime this year and later in Bern.
It should be noted that most museums have committed to the 1998 Washington conference principles on the identification and return of Nazi looted art, but private owners are not bound by the agreement. Although there is a 30-year statute of limitations applied to stolen property in Germany, there is nothing binding private owners to restitution of Nazi looted art. While Germany does have a board referred to as the Limbach Commission that mediates in controversial art restitution cases, the board can only issue recommendations.
It will be interesting to learn about the progress of the Center’s provenance research and restitution efforts over the next year.