November 21, 2014

Editorial Essay on the Kunstmuseum Bern's Upcoming Decision on Whether to Accept the Gurlitt Collection

By Judge Arthur Tompkins

It appears that on Monday 24 November (or thereabouts) we will know whether the Kunstmuseum Bern will take on the Gurlitt collection. In an article in the New York Times on 20 November ("Nazi-Era Art Collection Appears to Find a Home" by Melissa Eddy), a number of sources are cited as expressing confidence that the Kunstmuseum will indeed accept Cornelius Gurlitt’s unexpected bequest made public at the time of his death in May this year: 
“Sources ... said it was likely that the board members [of the Kunstmuseum Bern] would gather in Switzerland on Saturday to decide on Mr Gurlitt’s gift. Stuart E. Eizenstadt ... now special adviser on Holocaust issues to Secretary of State John Kerry, said Thursday that it was his understanding that the museum would accept the offer.”
Image Credit www.worldjewishcongress.org
The magnitude of the challenges that will come with the collection should not be underestimated.  As the NYT article notes, many of the works are likely to be “badly in need of restoration”, and furthermore the resources required to, as the Kunstmuseum Bern will most likely have to do, determine the provenance of each item in the collection, will be significant.

In an open letter I sent to the Trustees of the Kunstmuseum Bern back in June published on ARCA’s Blog here where I suggested:
What should happen, and immediately after the acceptance of the inheritance, is the creation by the Kunstmuseum Bern of an independent, well-resourced international tribunal to determine the fate of each and every one of the many art works. The tribunal itself should consist of international jurists and others with a range of art-crime related skills, assisted by a staff of independent provenance researchers, cataloguers, art and general historians, claimant advocates, and dispute resolution specialists.

After identifying each art work, promulgating identifying and other characteristics widely, and proactively inviting and assisting claimant contact with the tribunal, the tribunal should resolve the fate of each art work by employing first a range of appropriate dispute resolution processes so as to reach an agreed, just and fair solution. Failing agreement, the tribunal should determine each individual case by giving due weight and recognition both to the relevant legal factors, but also and crucially to the moral aspects as well.

A transparent and just process as outlined would avoid heaping future injustice on the top of past wrongs. It would propel the Kunstmuseum Bern to the forefront of efforts to undo some of the great harms done 70 years ago, amid the chaos and confusion of war.
The NYT article quotes similar sentiments as being expressed by an attorney for Mr David Toren, an 89-year-old descendant of the Jewish industrialist David Friedmann, who has a strong claim to Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on the Beach,":
“ ... this presents a real opportunity for the museum to raise its international profile by doing the right thing with regard to the portion of the collection that was stolen by the Nazis.”
There is clearly more to come on this continuing story early next week.

Read the full New York Times article here.

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