May 8, 2014

Italy’s Corte Suprema di Cassazione and the Getty Bronze: Case postponed again until June 4, 2014

By Lynda Albertson, CEO, ARCA

In a story that seems like it will never end, Italy’s Corte Suprema di Cassazione (Supreme Court of Cassation) was scheduled to hand down its final ruling today at the Palace of Justice in Rome on the fate of the l’Atleta di Fano, commonly known by as The Getty Bronze, the “Victorious Youth" or il Lisippo.  The bronze work of art, a representation of an athletic youth standing with all of his weight on his right leg, is depicted crowning himself with an olive wreath. It was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum under less than transparent circumstances in 1977 for $3.95 million.

I spoke with  Stefano Alessandrini, Consultant  to Il Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientali today, who was at the court awaiting today's verdict.  He relayed that as many expected, the final decision has been postponed once again, citing that the case was "delicate". 

After years of discussions Italy's highest court still has not elected to issue its ruling upholding a lower court's judgment that the "Victorious Youth" was illicitly exported from Italy and as such, is subject to seizure.  Instead the Terzo sezione penale della Suprema Corte (Third Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court) has shifted the scheduled hearing to June 04, 2014 to establish whether or not the order of confiscation issued by the Court of Pesaro on May 3, 2012 should be affirmed.

The Getty Museum has been fighting a lower court's ruling by claiming that the statue was found in international waters in 1964 and was purchased by the Getty Museum in 1977 -- years after Italian courts concluded that there was no evidence that the statue belonged to Italy.  Throughout this elongated court process, the J. Paul Getty Museum has maintained that the statue's accidental discovery by Italian fishermen, who then brought the bronze to Fano and hid it from authorities, did not grant the statue the status of an Italian object.

Italy's second cultural property attorney following this case, Maurizio Fiorilli retired April 12, 2014 passing the torch to a third state prosecutor.  

As with the February postponement, Italy continues to wait.

Authenticity in Art Congress 2014: Retired FBI Agent Virginia Curry reports from The Hague

Martin Kemp presented "It Doesn't Look Like Leonardo"
on the first day of the Authenticity in Art Congress
by Virginia M. Curry

THE HAGUE -- The Authenticity in Art Congress opened Wednesday here at the Louwman [Automobile] Museum in The Hague to discuss how the seemingly opposed spheres of  science and art history connoisseurship  might be aligned  to synthesize a protocol for establishing authenticity of art, specifically paintings.

Jugen W. Wittmann, the Senior Manager of the Mercedes Benz archives and Collection Brand Communications, presented the protocols utilized by Mercedes Benz to preserve the integrity of their vehicles against forgery.  Documents in their archives record each car manufactured and the “as delivered” condition of the vehicle to the original owner, with the serial numbers recorded on the vehicle. Wittman noted that such transparency is important since although there were only 33 of the Mercedes SSK ever built, there are more than 100 hundred registered as SSKs with the international Vintage Collectors Group.

Keynote Speaker Javier Lumbreras, the CEO of Artemundi Global Fund, discussed the collection of art and the frustrations of the purchaser who is burdened with the proof of due diligence.  He concluded by saying that inasmuch as science cannot provide a “bulletproof” decision which can stand up as evidence in court, litigation, in his experience, is not worth the effort.  Lumbreras drew an analogy similar to that of Jugen Wittmann of Mercedes Benz by noting that of the fourteen Rembrandt works in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art only seven of them have an agreed authenticity.

Professor Martin Kemp, FBA, Emeritus Professor in the History of Art, Trinity College Oxford, (and an acknowledged Leonardo scholar) initiated the section on the Historical Developments in Painting Authentication and spoke about professional opinion in his paper, “It Doesn’t Look Like Leonardo”. Professor Kemp argued the construction of evidence of authenticity as “The judgment by eye in science and art and the tendency for the eye to see what it expects to see.”  He illustrated his point by comparing the points of view of a traffic accident, such as the point of view of the insurance adjuster, driver, weatherman, etc. noting that each one’s interpretation of what they see is relative to their interest. Professor Kemp concluded that the observable consequences of the visual techniques of historical and scientific that are the most specific in identification are the most malleable.  Above all, he cautioned, “We should be more cautious and prudent in our personal investments in our malleable acts and seeing.”

Marker for Vermeer in The Hague
Dr. Margaret Dalivalle presented a paper, “Picturarum vere Originalium: Inventing originality in early Modern London", which explored the question of originality of paintings and the invention of the idea of artistic originality in the eighteenth century.

Professor Frank James, Professor of the History of Science, Head of Collections and Heritage of the Royal Institution, London, spoke about the work of Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday who developed chemical techniques in the late 18th, early 19th century to understand, conserve and record archeological and artistic objects, such as the wall painting and vase painting from Pompeii; the Lewis chess pieces; the unfurling and attempts to read the Herculaneum Papyri; and their comparisons with the pigments found on the Elgin marbles.

Dr. Lynn Catterson, an Art Historian from Columbia University, presented an extraordinary paper and cautionary tale about Stefano Bardini and his Art of Crafting Authenticity.  Dr. Catterson's research led into the archives of Stefano Bardini whose expertize involved the forgery of “originals” and falsification of context and provenance.  Dr. Catterson’s research  in the Bardini archive challenges the accepted comparanda and consequently, perceived authenticity and attributions in major museums.

Dr. John Brewer, Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, CalTech, discussed the Duveen Trial of 1929,  the hazards of presenting scientific evidence of authenticity in court, and the subsequent rejection of conflicting  connoisseurship in court.

Evan Hepler-Smith, a Historian of modern science and doctoral candidate at Princeton University, discussed the early utilization of x-ray to fit the material, intellectual and social contours of authentication and  connoisseurship.

Ms. Curry is a retired FBI agent, a licensed private investigator, and an art historian.

Gurlitt Art Collection: Switzerland's Kunstmuseum Bern announces that Cornelius Gurlitt willed his art to them; art restitution expert Marc Masurovsky weighs in

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Although Cornelius Gurlitt's legal team has not posted on its website news of the disposition of their client's art collecting following his death yesterday, Switzerland's Kunstmuseum Bern (Museum of Fine Arts Bern) issued this media release:
Today, May 7, 2014, Kunstmuseum Bern was informed by Mr Christoph Edel, lawyer to Mr Cornelius Gurlitt, who died yesterday, May 6, 2014, by telephone and in writing that Mr Cornelius Gurlitt has appointed the private-law foundation Kunstmuseum Bern his unrestricted and unfettered sole heir. Despite speculation in the media that Mr Gurlitt had bequeathed his collection to an art institution outside Germany, the news came like a bolt from the blue, since at no time has Mr Gurlitt had any connection with Kunstmuseum Bern. The Board of Trustees and Directors of Kunstmuseum Bern are surprised and delighted, but at the same time do not wish to conceal the fact that this magnificent bequest brings with it a considerable burden of responsibility and a wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind, and questions in particular of a legal and ethical nature. They will not be in a position to issue a more detailed statement before first consulting the relevant files and making contact with the appropriate authorities.
Kunstmuseum Bern describes itself as the oldest art museum in Switzerland with a permanent collection. Videos highlighting the collection include works by Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Amedeo Modigliani, Gustave Courbet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso. The museum's website does not included any information about provenance or collecting history for works of art in its collection.

I asked Marc Masurovsky, an art historian and an expert on Nazi-era looted art and restitution, for his comment on the news that Cornelius Gurlitt has willed his collection to the fine art museum in Switzerland; this is his response via email:
The will still has to go through probate, if I am not mistaken. Then, one might ask: can the German authorities challenge its authenticity? its validity? As for the claimants, Switzerland is as inhospitable a place where one wishes to gain satisfaction as Germany. Look at what Mr. Monteagle has to go through to try and get his Constable painting back from La Chaux-de-Fond. Civil law covers claims and they rest in part on the good faith of the recent acquirer or possessor of the work in question. Does the fact that the Kunstmuseum is aware through international publicity of the dubious origins of some of the works in the Gurlitt collection grounds for challenging its good faith? Does this concept also apply to donations from people one does not know? Can the Bern Kunstmuseum reject the gift since it is definitely a poison pill? I certainly do not have the answers. But I do have tons of questions, much like everyone else.
In The New York Times, Doreen Carvajal reports in "Wooing the Public to Recover Art" (March 18, 2014) that Alain Monteagle is resorting to public referendums in his attempt to recover the John Constable painting, "Deadham from Langham", which he claims was taken from his family during World War II:
Swiss museum officials do not dispute that the painting was looted — they acknowledge the fact on a plaque below it. But they say that the museum accepted it in good faith, and that Swiss law does not require restitution in such circumstances. So Mr. Monteagle and his relatives have taken to the soapbox. They are using the local Swiss system of popular referendums — which require the signatures of at least 10 percent of registered voters, 2,500 in this case — to bring the issue before elected officials, since the museum is owned by the town. And they are taking the early, tentative steps required to force the local legislature to put an issue to a vote; if the legislature were to approve, more signatures could be gathered for a communitywide vote.

May 7, 2014

Cornelius Gurlitt Art Collection: Vanity Fair's Alex Shoumatoff Reported on the Case Last Month

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Cornelius Gurlitt had artwork at both his apartment in the Schwabing neighborhood of Munich and a residence in Saltzburg. In November 2013, the Augsburg state prosecutor described the 1,406 artworks (121 framed, 1,285 unframed) found February 2012 in Gurlitt's Schwabing apartment as oil paintings, drawings, and prints from artists such as Matisse, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, and Max Liebermann. In March 2014, Gurlitt's attorney said that of 236 artworks in Gurlitt's Saltzburg home, of which 39 were oil paintings, about 7 had been done by Cornelius' Gurlitt's grandfather Louis.

The cover of the April 2014 issue of Vanity Fair includes the headline: "Uncovering a $1 Billion Nazi Art Stash: Not in 1945 -- Now! by Alex Shoumatoff p. 174." Online, Shoumatoff's article is under "The Devil and the Art Dealer". Shoumatoff, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and a former writer for The Washington Post and The New Yorker, describes in his 13-page article (including photographs) Gurlitt's 'trove' as 'worth more than a billion dollars'.

Shoumatoff describes how the December 2011 sale by Cornelius Gurlitt of Max Beckmann's "The Lion Tamer", of which the heirs of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim received 40% of the proceeds and an admission from Cornelius Gurlitt 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."

After Hildebrand Gurlitt -- himself one-quarter Jewish -- opened an art gallery in Hamburg after Hitler appointment as Chancellor in 1933, Gurlitt acquired 'forbidden art at bargain prices from Jews fleeing the country or needing money to pay the devastating capital-flight tax and, later, the Jewish wealthy levy', Shoumatoff wrote, and was later appointed to Goebbels' Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art, whose job it was to sell degenerate (as defined by the Nazis) art abroad: 'Hildebrand was permitted to acquire degenerate artworks himself, as long as he paid for them in hard foreign currency, an opportunity that he took advantage of.'

You can read the rest of the article to find out what Soumatoff reports on Gurlitt's activities in Nazi-occupied Paris and the investigation 70 years later into the artwork held by Hildebrand's son.

Gurlitt Art Collection: Cornelius Gurlitt's wishes regarding "degenerate art" in his collection

The website defending Cornelius Gurlitt,, provides the art collector's position which includes his stated belief that:
he had inherited a collection from his father that predominantly consisted of so-called degenerate art from former German Reich property in public collections and museums. Cornelius Gurlitt was not aware that his collection also includes a few works that today can be qualified as looted art. After the rightful return of the entire collection by the Augsburg public prosecutors and the customs authorities, he is prepared to review and arrive at fair solutions together with the claimants for those works that are suspected of being looted art in such instances where qualified, documented, and justified claims for their return are asserted by heirs of Jewish of persecution and where morally compelling grounds exist. This voluntary, morally driven commitment on the part of Cornelius Gurlitt applies to only very few works in the collection from the “Schwabing art discovery,” according to current information at most 3% of the 1,280 confiscated works. 
Several German museums have already made offers to repurchase the works in the collection considered “degenerate” art. Cornelius Gurlitt is quite willing to carefully consider such offers for repurchase, providing they correspond with the market value of the works in question and the legal and factual situation. This approach is in keeping with the historic truth that Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt legally acquired by way of purchase or trade from the German Reich the works that had been confiscated as “degenerate” art. Due to his father’s secured acquisition of title to the “degenerate” art, no alternatives other than repurchase through German museums come under consideration. Cornelius Gurlitt will gladly review appropriate repurchase offers made by German museums for “degenerate” art.
Cynthia Saltzman discussed the lack of remedies for German museums who had their collections raided by the Nazis in her book, Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece (Viking, 1998). For example, the Nazis forcibly took "Dr. Gachet from a city museum in Frankfurt and years later, when the portrait reappeared at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Frankfurt officials found out that they had no legal claim to recover their painting (the book was reviewed in The New York Times here and includes specific details about the painting's journey).

Gurlitt Art Collection: Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, dies following convalescing from heart surgery; legal counsel announces end of investigation

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Today legal counsel for Cornelius Gurlitt announced the death of their client -- and the end of the investigation -- on the website created a few months ago in defense of allegations that paintings belonging to the 81-year-old had been stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis. According to, Herr Gurlitt had been in the care of a doctor following heart surgery when he requested that he be able to return to his apartment in Schwabing:
With the death of Cornelius Gurlitt end both the court-ordered care, as well as the investigation. Our sympathy goes to the family of the deceased.
Berlin's Focus Magazine reported in early November that two years ago Bavarian customs (Bayerische Zollfahnder) discovered 1,500 works by artists such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse -- believed to have been confiscated during the Third Reich -- amongst the trash in the apartment of 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of art historian and dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt (images of the article can be found here and here). The granddaughter of Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg told CNN she had just heard about the discovering of reputedly stolen art. The New York Times reported on the 'uproar in the art world.' Holocaust-looted art restitution experts were interviewed as to the significance of the discovery. Prosecutors held a press conference to explain the case. published information obtained when Hildebrand Gurlitt was interviewed by the Allies after WWII. NPR did a segment on the questions raised by the Gurlitt art collection. Reuters described Cornelius Gurlitt as a tragic figure. Germany published some of the art collection online, set up a committee to investigate claims, and agreed to publicize the works. Cornelius Gurlitt, described as a mysterious recluse, is found shopping near his apartment. Curlitt's art collection, flagged because of the association with Hildebrand Gurlitt, is classified under an art fund named after the neighborhood in which the art was discovered in Munich. Gurlitt's artworks are posted on the Lost Art Internet Database. De Spiegel describes the 'Phantom Collector'. Cornelius Gurlitt has first interview. A 1955 essay by Hildebrand Gurlitt on his art collection is dug up. Maybe art will be returned to Cornelius Gurlitt. About that empathy. 'Dirty little secret'. Legal counsel retained. Restitution plans. Cornelius agrees to provenance research and his collection is returned.

May 3, 2014

Bob Wittman, Diana Widmaier-Picasso, and art thefts in Paris

Majsan Boström, StarNews Correspondent (Wilmington, North Carolina) reported in "FBI agent, best selling author to discuss art cases" (April 23, 2014) that former FBI agent Bob Wittman lectured at the University of North Carolina Wilmington -- and that she joined Wittman and Diana Widmaier-Picasso for breakfast the following morning:
"We are going to talk about our books and compare notes about the theft and recovery of her grandfather's paintings," Wittman said.
Wittman explains his relationship to Widmaier-Picasso to Boström:
Wittman worked the case in which her Paris apartment was burglarized in 2007 and paintings worth $66 million were stolen while she was sleeping. "I was involved (posing0 as the wealthy U.S. buyer that the paintings were going to be sent to," Wittman said.
Three paintings by Pablo Picasso were stolen on February 27, 2007. Ms. Widmaier-Picasso spoke about the case to The New Yorker in June 2011. In other related articles, Wittman spoke about art thefts in Paris to ARTNews here and to The New York Times here.

April 26, 2014

Al Ghat, A Hidden Treasure, Sets Example for Cultural Property Heritage Preservation

Al Ghat valley. Photo by Christiana O’Connell-Schizas
by Christiana O’Connell-Schizas

Al Ghat, a hidden treasure amongst the mysterious sands of Arabia, has set a prime example for other culturally rich rural villages and towns like itself; their renovation and restoration projects are attracting more and more people who are slowly starting to appreciate its patrimony and its eminent date plantations.

Located less than a three hour drive northwest of Riyadh, Al Ghat, with a population of less than 20,000, has a 30-bed hospital; a community center; two high schools; and hundreds of date farms. Unlike many other regions in the Kingdom, Al Ghat has sustainable soil and available water sources: three natural water springs; a well dating to the Prophet himself (Peace be upon Him); and, depending on the time of year, waterfalls.[1] In old Al Ghat village, one can find dilapidated mud-straw houses, the last of which were abandoned 40-50 years ago (these residences were made of the same materials used 500 years ago.)

Home of the Saudi dates

Traditional agriculture was confined to small plots along the valley banks, producing small harvests of dates, wheat, and various fruits and vegetables. In the 1980s, to encourage agriculture, the government distributed land, dug wells, and purchased farming tools and fertilizers which led to a huge expansion of Al Ghat’s farming sector. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Saudi Arabian date production now represents approximately 12 to 14 percent of world production.[2]

Our camp site on the plantation. Photo by Nehme El Jorr
A few weeks ago, with some family and friends, I was fortunate enough to be welcomed and treated to the hospitality of a local date farmer. We camped out on his plantation for one night and he shared the following information with us: One date bearing palm tree can easily produce 200 kilograms of dates per season. Depending on the variety of date, each kilo is sold for SAR 20 (equivalent to approximately $5)[3]. The plantation has a modest 100 palm trees so if he sold his product, he would receive a gross income of about SAR 400,000 ($106,600) per season.

Al Ghat dates have even made an impact in London with the opening of the Bateel coffee shop in August 2011 on a corner of New Bond Street and with Saudi artist Budur bint Abdullah Al-Sudairy's piece titled: ‘Al-Ghat Dates: Candy for the rich, Nourishment for the poor’ which the Ulysses Prize at the London Art Biennale, 2013.

Heritage projects

A dilapidated house in Al Ghat. Photo by Costas S. Schizas
Aside from the remarkable date farms, Al Ghat is recognized for its cultural heritage and, in contrast to many Saudi towns, its commended efforts to maintain it. 

One way the Al Ghat Municipality is preserving its heritage is by renovating many of the old residences and turning them into a luxurious $1,000 per night hotel. It is unclear how many of the old houses will be restored to their former glory and the project is far from complete. This could probably be attributed to a lack of funding, and the fact that the same tools, methods and materials are being used for the reconstruction. This is extremely time consuming as the bricks have to be prepared in the same way as they were hundreds of years ago. Mud is obtained and mixed with straw (the binding agent), and sand (to stop the bricks from breaking). The mixture is subsequently packed into brick shaped molds and left in the sun to dry over an extended period. During the building process, wet mud is used in place of cement to hold the bricks together.

A caved in roof with more dilapidated
 houses in the background. Photo by author.
The roof’s structural beams are made of acacia wood that is scarcely obtained from the surrounding desert. Then, dry palm branches or thin bamboo shoots, found by the riverbanks, are tightly tied together to form a type of mat that is laid on the beams before a thick layer of mud is spread over the said to fill the gaps. This provides good insulation against the blazing desert sun.

Some of the completed projects include the old market and the central square of the old town. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) worked effortlessly with the Al Ghat Municipality to ensure its unique cultural heritage is preserved. Their efforts have brought many tourists to this small town, local and expatriates alike. Special weekly festivals reminiscent of the Najd traditions and souks are arranged in the town on Thursdays and the local market offers farm products and tools.[4]

The other significant project has been the Al Ghat Municipal Museum. The museum was the palace of the late Prince Nasser bin Saad Al-Sudairy that was donated to highlight Al Ghat's social life and history throughout the ages and the contribution of its residents in the foundation of the Saudi State.[5] It exhibits Paleolithic tools and petroglyphs found in and around Al Ghat; traditional agriculture, clothing and crafts; traditional hunting using ancient guns, dogs and falcons; the governors of the village appointed by the King; the British explorers that passed through Al Ghat, such as William Gifford Palgrave; and the ‘jussah’, the room in the home set aside for the preservation of dates.

The production of the said bricks with some of the restored
buildings in the background and a workman's portacabin
on the right. Photo by author.
The international cultural community should applaud the SCTA’s endeavors in preserving Al Ghat’s cultural heritage and recognize the jewels the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has to offer.

[1] According to Sheikh Abdullah bin Khamis, Al Ghat received its name from the echoes of the gushing water through the canyon toward the town.

[2] During the summer of 2012, the annual Buraidah Dates Festival, the world’s largest dates festival, attracted more than one million visitors from around the Kingdom. Farmers and venders sold an estimated 300,000 tones of dates worth approximately SR1 billion over the 90-day event. Sukkari dates account for 80 percent of sales and are the most popular among Saudis according to vendors.
Long barks of acacia wood being used as roof beams.
Photo by Costas S. Schizas.

[3] Saudi has 450 varieties of the 2,000 species known worldwide.

[4] "Al-Ghat Becoming a Tourist Destination." Arab News, 23 Mar. 2012.

[5] Al Ghat supported the Salafi reform movement and acceded peacefully to the First Saudi State. Historical sources do not refer any military campaigns directed against the village. Oral reports mention that some of the Al Ghat inhabitants took part in the campaigns waged against the First Saudi State to help spread reform.

A view of a completed roof. Photo by author.

"Al-Ghat Becoming a Tourist Destination." Arab News, 23 Mar. 2012. Web.

Harrison, Roger. "Bateel London." Arab News, 28 Mar. 2012. Web.

Hassan, Rashid. "Heritage Sites in Riyadh See Massive Influx of Visitors." Arab News, 21 Oct. 2013. Web.

Hurst, Henry A. "Dates: The Fruit of Islam and Arabia." Saudi Gazette, 7 Nov. 2012. Web.

Informal discussions with Fawaz and Imad Al Azmi and Khaled Al Amar owners of the date plantation mentioned above.

"Saudi Painter Wins in London." Arab News, 29 Jan. 2013. Web.

April 24, 2014

Gurlitt Art Collection: Opinion: "What to do with the Munich Art Trove?"

by Judge Arthur Tompkins

The missteps by the German federal and state authorities continue, as they try but so far fail properly to deal with the many art works known variously as the Munich Art Trove, the Schwabing Art Trove, or the Gurlitt Art hoard (“Modern Art as Nazi Plunder”, The New York Times, April 14; “Gurlitt art confiscation ends”, The Art Newspaper, April 9, 2014). 

To recap: In March 2012 Bavarian tax authorities stumble on over 1400 works of art in a nondescript Munich flat, owned by Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi-era German art dealer. They sit on the news for a year and a half until, in November 2013, German media break the news to a stunned world and, increasingly, an angry and frustrated group of widely dispersed possible claimants. Initially, stonewalling and bluster and a dismissively bureaucratic attitude are on display, until the intervention of Federal authorities leads to the reluctant acknowledgement that this is not just another local tax evasion case. But the release of details of the art works continues to be frustratingly slow and incomplete.

Visits to other homes owned by Mr. Gurlitt reveal even more art works, some in deteriorated condition, amid both ongoing calls for much greater openness in deciding just what would happen to the art works, and questions about the legality of the seizure of the works by the Bavarian authorities. 

Eventually, a multinational Task Force to investigate the provenance of the art works is announced by the German Government. Potential problems with Nazi-era laws, still on the statute books in Germany, loom, as does the absence from Germany’s statute books of any law requiring the return of Nazi-era looted art.

Now comes further disquieting news: The German Government has announced a deal, apparently negotiated with Mr. Gurlitt’s legal guardian, his defense counsel and the Bavarian authorities, (but without it seems the involvement or indeed knowledge of any representatives of the dispossessed), “to allow provenance research on a voluntary basis once the works are released from police custody.” But the Task Force will be up against an arbitrary one year deadline, after which provenance research will continue, it seems, only at Mr. Gurlitt’s pleasure. One short year to investigate and decide what should happen to over 1500 individual art works, many of which had been acquired by a dubious art dealer in times of chaos and circumstances of disaster 70 years ago, that had been hidden for decades with no whisper of their continued existence, and the details (and even images) of which are, even today, still incomplete. One year? Really?

And, on the same day, comes word that an unidentified rival claim to Matisse’s “Woman Sitting in Armchair” has come forward, jeopardizing negotiations to return that one painting to the heirs of French art dealer Paul Rosenberg just as an agreement to return the painting seemed close. And that is only one painting, albeit one with an uncharacteristically clear and well-established provenance. If there are problems with the Matisse, in a relatively straightforward case, what is to be the fate of the very many others where the records are missing or incomplete or inconsistent, the evidence patchy or confused or inconclusive, and the path to a resolution likely to prove labyrinthine?

The German government needs to accept that this mess is not a German tangle to unravel. It is unavoidably an international one. The creation of the Task Force was a partial recognition of that, but the continuing and serial missteps and errors, and the persistent inability or reluctance to be completely open about what is happening on the part of both the Bavarian and German Federal authorities, and now the imposition of an arbitrary and unrealistic deadline, demonstrate that, for whatever reason, the complexity of the truly international nature of the multi-faceted challenges presented by these art works eludes them.

What should happen, and quickly, is the creation of an independent, well-resourced ad-hoc international tribunal to determine the fate of each and every one of the many art works recovered. 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, art and general historians, claimant advocates, and dispute resolution specialists.

Secondly, that tribunal should be given the job, by German legislation and international treaty working in tandem, of resolving the fate of each art work by employing first a range of dispute resolution processes. If those processes do not result in an agreed just and fair solution, then the Tribunal should have the jurisdiction to decide each case by giving due weight and recognition to the moral aspects of each case, in addition to relevant legal factors. 70 years on, much relevant evidence, even if it once existed, is gone. All contemporary witnesses to Hildebrand Gurlitt’s activities are dead. Many records and documents that might once have existed have been lost or mislaid or destroyed in the chaos of wartime and post-war Europe. In those circumstances, to compel sometimes inadequately resourced claimants onto a strictly legal battlefield, hedged about with evidential and procedural constraints within the artificially narrow construct of a sovereign state’s domestic legal system, and then to require them to fight a legal battle against that same sovereign state, will likely pile future injustice on the top of past wrongs.

The December 1998 Washington Principles, to which Germany is a signatory, demand identification of looted art, open and accessible records, the public dissemination of art proactively to seek out pre-War owners or heirs, and the deploying of resources and personnel. A “just and fair” solution must actively be sought. Germany has been, at best, a cautious adopter of these principles. Fifteen years on, these 1500 art works give Germany the opportunity to cut this Gordian knot. Such an approach is not unprecedented. The various threads already exist, in both the looted art arena and elsewhere. All that is required is the will and the leadership simply to do it. 

Judge Arthur Tompkins is a trial Judge from Wellington, New Zealand. He teaches Art in War each year as part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Art Crimes Studies offered by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (, in Umbria, Italy.

April 23, 2014

Republic of Austria vs. Altmann: Schoenberg to speak at Malibu City Hall Council Chambers on April 29

E. Randol Schoenberg will discuss "Republic of Austria vs. Altmann" at the Malibu City Hall Council Chambers on April 29 at a free lecture sponsored by the Malibu Cultural Arts Commission (see article by Sarah Schmerling in The Malibu Times). You may find more information at the Malibu City Calendar of events here.
E. Randol Schoenberg and his client, Maria Altmann, famously took on the Republic of Austria to recover paintings stolen from Altmann’s family under the Nazi regime during World War II. The case involved convincing the United States Supreme Court to that Altmann could sue Austria for the return of the paintings. The dispute was arbitrated in Austria and, in January 2006, that panel agreed that the paintings, valued at over $325 million, should be returned to the family.