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May 8, 2014

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.