At a press conference today, the Gurlitt taskforce presented its final report on the provenance research into the Schwabing art find. Regular readers will be familiar with the Gurlitt case, which we have covered here in quite some detail. In a nutshell, the Gurlitt taskforce was established in November 2013 to deal with the art collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a German art dealer who traded in degenerate art during the Nazi era. The collection was seized by the public prosecution (Staatsanwaltschaft) in Augsburg in early 2012 and was believed to contain a substantial number of looted artwork (see here for a detailed chronology of the Gurlitt saga in English).
The Gurlitt taskforce formally came to an end on December 31, 2015. As of January 2016, the German Lost Art Foundation (Zentrum für Kulturgutverluste) continues the investigation of the Gurlitt art collection. Its efforts will focus on determining on works where the provenance has not yet been conclusively established.
Originally, the legal basis for the taskforce and the actions it took was unclear, to say the least. Almost to the day one month before his death in May 2014, Cornelius Gurlitt had entered into a trilateral agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany and Bavaria, which then served as a legal basis for the provenance research into his collection.
From a legal perspective, I was of course primarily interested to see how many claims were made and how these were dealt with. The report states that approx. 200 requests that related to looted art had to be dealt with. These request enquired whether certain works of art or parts of certain family collections were part of the Gurlitt collection. Out of these 200, 23 requests raised 118 claims that pertained to 104 works of art – so for some artwork, there must have been competing claims. For 53% (62) of these claims, the taskforce came to a conclusive result, 47% (56) are still pending. Out of those that were conclusively dealt with, four were found justified, as the artwork had been lost as a result of Nazi persecution (NS-verfolgungsbedingter Entzug), 43 were found not to be justified. In 15 cases, the internal review process is still outstanding.
On the basis of what is in the task force’s report, it is very difficult to assess these results. The internal processes remain, even though today’s publication does shed some light on them, largely a black box to the public (and, I may add, to claimants as well).
There were some indirect effects of the taskforce’s work as well, that one might want to take ito account. For example, I did not see that the report mentioned the fact that the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne learned from Hildebrand Gurlitt’s business records about the background of a drawing it had acquired from him. Gurlitt’s business records published by the taskforce showed that shortly before going into exile, a Jewish family in December 1938 sold 14 Adolph von Menzel drawings to Gurlitt for 3,200 Reichsmark, clearly below market value. In April 1939, the museum bought one of these, the drawing “Blick auf Schandau” for 1,400 Reichsmark. Gurlitt himself had paid only 300 Reichsmark. The musem has since identified the heirs and reached out to the family.