Munich Court of Appeals: Berne Museum of Fine Arts Confirmed as Gurlitt’s Heir


olg-munchenIn November 2013, the Munich Art Find made headlines world wide, when a newsmagazine broke the story about the seizure of an art collection in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a privileged art dealer in the Nazi period. With the help of some guest authors, we have covered the story and some of its legal implications quite extensively on this blog.* Things have been quiet recently, but today, the Court of Appeal (Oberlandesgericht) Munich announced its decision in the dispute about Cornelius Gurlitt’s last will, under which the Gurlitt art collection was bequeathed upon the Berne Museum of Fine Arts (Kunstmuseum Bern).

The last will had been challenged by one of Gurlitt’s cousins. In line with the first instance decision of the Munich Local Court (Amtsgericht) in March 2015, the Court of Appeal found that Cornelius Gurlitt did not lack legal capacity when he made his last will in January 2014. The Court of Appeal based its decision on the evidence of a expert psychiatrist appointed by the court, and on the hearing of several witnesses. The court found no evidence that the testator had suffered from a mental illness or from dementia. Accordingly, an inheritance certificate (Erbschein) was granted to the Berne Museum of Fine Arts. In line with the terms of the trilateral agreement between the museum, Bavaria and the Federal Republic of Germany, the museum can now take possession of the art collection to the extent that no restitution claims have been brought. As things currently stand, the task force experts spent about two years doing provenance research on 499 suspected paintings. The provenance could be established beyond doubt only with respect to 11 of those, for 152 works of art, the task force found minor, with respect to further 143 traces of how these works of art came into Gurlitt’s Possession.

One practical aspect of this court decision  the wider public may be interested in is that the exhibition which the Berne Museum of Fine Arts and Bundeskunsthalle Bonn are planning for 2017 will now go ahead as planned. This would be the first opportunity to see parts of the Gurlitt collection and supporting documentation. This is what the Berne museum itself had to say about the relevance of the collection:

In this body of work we not only find outstanding works in color on paper by new-objectivity artists (Otto Dix, Sappenkopf/Saphead, George Grosz, Die Krankenschwester/The Nurse). Additionally it shines with an extensive body of superior-quality water colors and individual paintings from the circles of the Brücke group of artists (Erich Heckel, Herrenbildnis/Portrait of a Man; Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Winterlandschaft/Winter Landscape; Emil Nolde, Überschwemmung/Flood, Steg mit Mühle/Footbridge with Mill, Otto Mueller (Portrait Maschka Mueller).

It also boasts works of artists belonging to the Blaue Reiter group, preeminently those executed by Franz Marc (Sitzendes Pferd/Sitting Horse, Pferde in Landschaft/Horse and Landscape), August Macke (Im Schlossgarten von Oberhofen/In the Palace Garden of Oberhofen), and Kandinsky (Schweres Schweben/Ponderously Poised). These water colors and gouaches are augmented by an enormous number of very fine prints by Max Beckmann, Lovis Corinth, Otto Dix, Heinrich Campendonk, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The latter items present diverse affinities to works in the Kunstmuseum Bern’s already existing collection.

Individual paintings of exceptional art-historical value are among the pieces for which research has not been not yet been conclusively finalized, among them a painting by Paul Cézanne, but also works by Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and more.”

Back to some more technical legal points: The Munich court did not grant leave of appeal to the Federal Supreme Court (Zulassung der Rechtsbeschwerde). Hence, unless an application to grant leave of appeal (Nichtzulassungsbeschwerde) is made and eventually is successful – which statistically speaking, is highly unlikely – , this is the end of the matter, as far as the inheritance certificate is concerned. As the court rightly points out in its press release, the family member who had opposed the issuance of an inheritance certificate to the Berne Museum of Fine Arts could still bring litigation against the museum and seek to establish that they are the true heirs. But given the findings in the inheritance proceedings, this appears to be an uphill battle.

* Full disclosure: I did not only cover the matter here, but also did represent claimants who brought restitution claims in relation to paintings in the Gurlitt collection.

The photo shows the historic Oberlandesgericht München building on Prielmayerstraße, as published in the court’s website.

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