On the heels of several years of provenance research, the Kusntmuseum Bern in Switzerland announced that it would relinquish ownership of 29 works from the Gurlitt hoard, a collection of some 1,600 works of art that the museum inherited from the son of a notorious Nazi art dealer. Unlike other artworks from the Gurlitt bequest that have been restituted, the works in this grouping were not deemed to be definitively Nazi-looted. Rather, they have ambiguous wartime provenance with implications of looting or suspicious circumstances. Under the terms of its 2014 agreement with the German and Bavarian governments, the museum is not technically required to renounce ownership of these works, but has the option to do so.
The vast Gurlitt collection, which includes pieces by Max Beckmann, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, was originally amassed by Hildebrand Gurlitt, a German dealer in Nazi-looted art who directly profited from the persecution of Jewish art collectors and dealers. In addition to being one of four dealers authorized by Adolf Hitler to trade in so-called “degenerate art,” Gurlitt was a buyer for Hitler’s planned museum in Linz. When Hildebrand died in 1956, his morally dubious art collection was quietly passed along to his widow Helene, and subsequently to his son Cornelius.
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Bavarian authorities were investigating Cornelius Gurlitt for tax evasion in 2012 when they stumbled upon a hidden trove of over 1,200 works of art at his Munich apartment (and later, hundreds more artworks at his house in Salzsburg). The suspicious circumstances kicked off a multi-year investigation into the works’ provenance, led by the government-funded task forces under the German Lost Art Foundation: the “Schwabing Art Trove” project (2013-2015), the “Gurlitt Provenance Research” project (2016-2017), and “Reviews, Documentation and Event-driven Research Work on the Gurlitt Art Trove” (2018).
Upon Cornelius Gurlitt’s death in 2014, the trove was bequeathed to the Kunstmuseum Bern. The museum accepted the controversial bequest but entered into an agreement with the German and Bavarian governments stipulating that works deemed to be unequivocally Nazi-looted would be returned, while the museum could decide whether to concede ownership of works with uncertain wartime provenance. In 2017, the museum launched a dedicated team for provenance research. Researchers had been working according to a “Provenance Traffic Light System,” whereby works were categorized as “red” (definitively looted), “yellow” (unclear provenance), or “green” (definitively not looted). The Kunstmuseum Bern divided the “yellow” category further, into “yellow-green” (unclear provenance with no evidence of looting) and “yellow-red” (unclear provenance with implications of looting).
In June 2021, the Kunstmuseum Bern determined that 1,337 works were “yellow-green”; these works, the museum announced in December 2021, would be retained by the institution unless new evidence of Nazi looting came to light. Meanwhile, 29 works were deemed to be “yellow-red,” and would be relinquished by the museum. Of this group, 22 works, including pieces by Pierre Auguste Renoir and Max Liebermann, will remain at the museum, where they will undergo further provenance research in light of “new substantial research paradigms.” Five artworks will be returned to the Federal Republic of Germany, on the condition that there is no need for additional research, no potential rightful owners are revealed, and no claimants come forward; in those cases, the museum would investigate further.
The final two works from the group are being jointly transferred to those believed to be their rightful owners. A pair of watercolors by Otto Dix, “Dame in der Lodge” (1922) and “Dompteuse” (1922), will be returned to the heirs of Dr. Ismar Littmann and Dr. Paul Schaefer, both victims of Nazi persecution. Littman’s heirs came forward with claims to the works years ago, while the Schaefer connection was uncovered during the research process.
Next, the Kunstmuseum Bern will consider the restitution claims brought by the heirs of Jewish collector Dr. Fritz Salo Gaser, who have laid claim to 13 “yellow-red” works, including pieces by Cristoph Voll and Wilhelm Lachnit. In its report, the museum indicated that “new insights [in research] will be reassessed at any time — along with the corresponding consequences.” For the sake of transparency, the Kunstmuseum Bern has released a publicly accessible online database of the Gurlitt collection, which will be updated regularly with any new research findings.
On September 16, 2022, the museum will mount a sweeping exhibition of works from the Gurlitt trove, along with archival material and testimonies from Hildebrand Gurlitt and Cornelius Gurlitt. Taking Stock: Gurlitt in Review will run until January 15, 2023.