GENEVA (AFP).- A Swiss museum that unexpectedly inherited a disputed hoard of priceless paintings, some likely plundered from Jews during World War II, plans to send a team to Germany to inspect the treasure. Matthias Frehner, head of the Bern Museum of Fine Arts, told the Berner Zeitung daily Thursday that the museum "first and foremost needs to go to Germany to get an impression of what the inheritance represents." His comment was published a day after the museum learned that it was the sole heir of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer, who died on Tuesday at the age of 81, following heart surgery. With the grant, the museum would become the owner of a spectacular trove of 1,280 artworks, including long-lost masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, that Gurlitt had hidden in his flat in the southern German city of Munich for decades. More than 200 other paintings, sketches ... More
In a provocatively-titled op-ed in the conversation, Tess Davis and Marc Masurovsky argue that a proposed bill would make American art museums a haven for stolen art by allowing them to “knowingly exhibit stolen art”. Their argument:
On March 25, backed by the art trade lobby, Republican Congressman Steve Chabot reintroduced the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act to the House of Representatives. On its face, HR 4292 asks Congress to “clarify” a small section of the the law. But in truth, the bill goes far beyond mere clarification.
It would instead undo established US law and policy by allowing American cultural institutions to block legal claims to artwork on loan from abroad. Museums would knowingly be able to exhibit stolen and looted art and antiquities. It would leave the rightful owners without any legal recourse to recover their property in US courts.
This bill is just the latest attempt by the less responsible players in the art market to weaken US law. American legal principles have long held that a thief cannot transfer good title. The receipt, possession, and transport of stolen property is a crime. US legislation has carved out a narrow exception to prevent the judicial seizure of art imported for exhibition, but only in very limited circumstances, which it clearly enumerates. HR 4292 would greatly expand this exception by divesting our courts of all jurisdiction over such objects.
Those are strong statements. And it must be said that the text of the proposed bill, at least by my reading, seems to do just the opposite. It makes it easier for Nazi-era claimants to pursue claims against possessors who send their art on temporary exhibition to the U.S.
. City of Amsterdam, which saw heirs of Malevich bringing suit against Amsterdam in federal court in Washington D.C.
Since 1965 the Exemption from Judicial Seizure of Cultural Objects Imported for Temporary Exhibition act grants immunity for temporary exhibitions for material being brought into the U.S. if the loan is in the national interest, and the objects are of cultural significance. Rick St. Hilaire and others have supported this clarification. And on its face the clarification seems necessary. Perhaps what Masurovsky and Davis really want is an end to all art immunizations—but they don’t really come out and say that. Instead they accuse Americn Museums of knowingly exhibiting and gathering stolen art. Though there are certainly examples of this on the extreme margins, the examples that the authors use both cut against their underlying position. The Portrait of Wally litigation never involved Federal immunity, only New York State immunity. And the Koh Ker material was not loaned to the United States, it was acquired or up for auction, and the Federal Prosecutors initiated forfeiture actions.
I am not a provenance researcher, and I am not familiar with how in-depth the State Department grants of immunity checks are, but it seems to me the authors have exaggerated their position. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see any example of any museum in North America being able to knowingly exhibit stolen material.
1. GENEVA (AFP).- A Swiss museum that unexpectedly inherited a disputed hoard of priceless paintings, some likely plundered from Jews during World War II, plans to send a team to Germany to inspect the treasure. Matthias Frehner, head of the Bern Museum of Fine Arts, told the Berner Zeitung daily Thursday that the museum "first and foremost needs to go to Germany to get an impression of what the inheritance represents." His comment was published a day after the museum learned that it was the sole heir of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer, who died on
2. VANITY FAIR -
The Devil and the Art Dealer By Alex Shoumatoff
It was the greatest art theft in history: 650,000 works looted from Europe by the Nazis, many of which were never recovered. But last November the world learned that German authorities had found a trove of 1,280 paintings, drawings, and prints worth more than a billion dollars in the Munich apartment of a haunted white-haired recluse. Amid an international uproar, Alex Shoumatoff follows a century-old trail to reveal the crimes—and obsessions—involved.
At about nine P.M. on September 22, 2010, the high-speed train from Zurich to Munich passed the Lindau border, and Bavarian customs officers came aboard for a routine check of passengers. A lot of “black” money—off-the-books cash—is taken back and forth at this crossing by Germans with Swiss bank accounts, and officers are trained to be on the lookout for suspicious travelers.
Though he had done nothing illegal—amounts under 10,000 euros don’t need to be declared—the old man’s behavior and the money aroused the officer’s suspicion. He gave back Gurlitt’s papers and money and let him return to his seat, but the customs officer flagged Cornelius Gurlitt for further investigation, and this would put into motion the explosive dénouement of a tragic mystery more than a hundred years in the making.
A Dark Legacy
Cornelius Gurlitt was a ghost. He had told the officer that he had an apartment in Munich, although his residence—where he pays taxes—was in Salzburg. But, according to newspaper reports, there was little record of his existence in Munich or anywhere in Germany. The customs and tax investigators, following up on the officer’s recommendation, discovered no state pension, no health insurance, no tax or employment records, no bank accounts—Gurlitt had apparently never had a job—and he wasn’t even listed in the Munich phone book. This was truly an invisible man.
And yet with a little more digging they discovered that he had been living in Schwabing, one of Munich’s nicer neighborhoods, in a million-dollar-plus apartment for half a century. Then there was that name. Gurlitt. To those with knowledge of Germany’s art world during Hitler’s reign, and
The investigators became curious as to what was in apartment No. 5 at 1 Artur-Kutscher-Platz. Perhaps they picked up on the rumors in Munich’s art world. “Everyone in the know had heard that Gurlitt had a big collection of looted art,” the husband of a modern-art-gallery owner told me. But they proceeded cautiously. There were strict private-property-rights, invasion-of-privacy, and other legal issues, starting with the fact that Germany has no law preventing an individual or an institution from owning looted art. It took till September 2011, a full year after the incident on the train, for a judge to issue a search warrant for Gurlitt’s apartment, on the grounds of suspected tax evasion and embezzlement. But still, the authorities seemed hesitant to execute it.
Then, three months later, in December 2011, Cornelius sold a painting, a masterpiece by Max Beckmann titled The Lion Tamer, through the Lempertz auction house, in Cologne, for a total of 864,000 euros ($1.17 million). Even more interesting, according to Der Spiegel, the money from the sale was split roughly 60–40 with the heirs of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who had had modern-art galleries in several German cities and Vienna in the 1920s. In 1933, Flechtheim had fled to Paris and then London, leaving behind his collection of art. He died impoverished in 1937. His family has been trying to reclaim the collection, including The Lion Tamer, for years.
As part of his settlement with the Flechtheim estate, according to an attorney for the heirs, Cornelius Gurlitt acknowledged that the Beckmann had been sold under duress by Flechtheim in 1934 to his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. This bombshell gave traction to the government’s suspicion that there might be more art in Gurlitt’s apartment.
But it took until February 28, 2012, for the warrant to finally be executed. When the police and customs and tax officials entered Gurlitt’s 1,076-square-foot apartment, they found an astonishing trove of 121 framed and 1,285 unframed artworks, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Max Liebermann, Otto Dix, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Kirchner, Delacroix, Daumier, and Courbet. There was a Dürer. A Canaletto. The collection could be worth
As reported in Der Spiegel, over a period of three days, Gurlitt was instructed to sit and watch quietly as officials packed the pictures and took them all away. The trove was taken to a federal customs warehouse in Garching, about 10 miles north of Munich. The chief prosecutor’s office made no public announcement of the seizure and kept the whole matter under tight wraps while it debated how to proceed. Once the artworks’ existence became known, all hell was going to break loose. Germany would be besieged by claims and diplomatic pressure. In this unprecedented case, no one seemed to know what to do. It would open old wounds, fault lines in the culture, that hadn’t healed and never will.
In the days that followed, Cornelius sat bereft in his empty apartment. A psychological counselor from a government agency was sent to check up on him. Meanwhile, the collection remained in Garching, with no one the wiser, until word of its existence was leaked to Focus, a German newsweekly, possibly by someone who had been in Cornelius’s apartment, perhaps one of the police or the movers who were there in 2012, because he or she provided a description of its interior. On November 4, 2013—20 months after the seizure and more than three years after Cornelius’s interview on the train—the magazine splashed on its front page the news that what appeared to be the greatest trove of looted Nazi art in 70 years had been found in the apartment of an urban hermit in Munich who had been living with it for decades.
Soon after the Focus story broke, the media converged on No. 1 Artur-Kutscher-Platz, and Cornelius Gurlitt’s life as a recluse was over.
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