Controversial Gurlitt Collection Can Go to Swiss Museum, German Court Says

The museum will continue research into the rightful heirs of some possibly Nazi-looted artworks

Max Liebermann's Riders on the Beach is among the works found in Cornelius Gurlitt's massive trove of art. (Photo: )
Max Liebermann’s Riders on the Beach is among the works found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s massive trove of art. (Photo: ) Wikimedia Commons

A massive—and controversial—trove of nearly 1,500 artworks known as the Gurlitt Hoard, found by Bavarian authorities in a basement in 2012, was rightfully gifted to a Swiss museum by its late owner, a court ruled today.

Cornelius Gurlitt was of sound mind when he signed documents that left the art he squirreled away above his apartment to the Museum of Fine Arts, Bern, the Munich court said, according to a report from the New York Times.

Since its discovery by authorities in 2012, during an investigation into tax evasion, the assemblage of Old Masters, Cubist and Impressionist works has electrified the art world. It’s easy to see why—the story of the recluse Gurlitt has nuance, eccentricity, mystery and, some would say, betrayal.

The Jewish son of the successful art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius had lived in Germany totally off the grid until authorities intercepted him on a train in 2010 with €9,000 in cash and a passport listing a false address. The younger Gurlitt’s name alone raised flags, as Hildebrand had been “one of the Nazis’ approved art dealers,” according to a report from Vanity Fair at the time.

When police found the nearly €1 billion worth of stashed art, though, German authorities kept the discovery secret for more than two years. When they did reveal the trove’s existence to the public, they were quickly assailed and later accused of bungling the process of returning pieces that many allege were stolen from Jews during the Nazi era to the rightful heirs.

After the second foundation to handle the research into provenance concluded its work, only a handful of pieces were found to be looted—a finding that chafed some observers. Research continues, however, and the Bern museum will be an active participant in further provenance inquiries, they told the Times.

But, while the elder Gurlitt’s trade in art with the Nazis—he bought 200 works including those by Picasso and Chagall for a mere 400 francs, according to Nazi records—has drawn ire, the seizure of the works from his son has also affected outcry. Germany does not enforce restitution of Nazi-stolen art, and the tax evasion allegations were not actually sufficient to confiscate the very valuable assortment of works, as Vanity Fair pointed out. (Protections for the descendants of those wronged by art deals during the Nazi era are stronger in Switzerland and the U.S.)

Nonetheless, the remaining art works from Gurlitt’s attic will be now be in the possession of the small Swiss museum he apparently chose. Though a cousin had disputed that he was competent in 2014 when he drew up his will (he died in May of that year), the court found he did not suffer from “delirium” at that time.

The Times said the cousin had hoped to keep the works in Germany, likely due to the more friendly legal landscape for retaining Nazi-looted art and art sold under duress during their rule if it was “legally obtained” at the time. However, the cousin has said she will investigate if she has further legal recourse. Controversial Gurlitt Collection Can Go to Swiss Museum, German Court Says