Harold Cunningham/Getty Images
A visitor walks in the Museum of Fine Arts Bern (Kunstmuseum Bern) in Bern, Switzerland, May 8, 2014. Harold Cunningham/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

Museums Plan to Exhibit Art from Gurlitt’s Nazi-Era Trove

The museums in Germany and Switzerland intend to display portions of the collection—1,500 works worth an estimated $1 billion—to find clues about their unknown provenance

Rose Kaplan
April 05, 2016
Harold Cunningham/Getty Images
A visitor walks in the Museum of Fine Arts Bern (Kunstmuseum Bern) in Bern, Switzerland, May 8, 2014. Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

The Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany have announced plans for parallel exhibitions of art from the estate of Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, had amassed a billion-dollar collection from dealing art in the Nazi era, before bequeathing it to his son.

The collection—consisting of some 1,500 works, which were discovered in the Munich and Salzburg apartments belonging to Cornelius Gurlitt and include paintings by Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso—was confiscated in 2012 by the German government as part of a tax evasion investigation, reported the New York Times. “The authorities kept the find a secret until November 2013, when it was revealed by a German newsmagazine.”

Tablet contributor Saul Austerlitz wrote about the collection shortly thereafter, laying out much of the controversy behind Gurlitt’s trove:

The discovery of the largest cache of looted Nazi art since the end of World War II, with an estimated worth of well over a billion dollars, in a shabby Munich apartment belonging to an 80-year-old art dealer named Cornelius Gurlitt was an obvious revelation. The discovery that local authorities had chosen to keep that information to themselves for nearly two years was a disturbing shock. In the opinion of many scholars and legal experts, it calls into question Germany’s commitment to the restoration of looted art to its rightful owners.

On Monday, after a mounting uproar, a list of 25 artworks—three paintings and 22 drawings—was released on the Lost Art Internet Database, the official German governmental website for looted art. But the overwhelming majority of works in Gurlitt’s collection remain unknown, an enormous black hole for potential claimants, some number of whom have surely died during the delay. “The amount of information that’s available is just really astonishingly small,” said Frank Lord, a lawyer at Herrick, Feinstein with experience in looted-art cases.

Little more is known about the contents of the collection, save for five works that have been identified as having been looted by Nazis after the German government spent two years and $2 million investigating the case.

Gurlitt died in 2014, leaving his collection to the Kunstmuseum in Bern. Louis Rönsberg, a lawyer representing Gurlitt’s cousin Uta Werner, who is currently challenging the validity of Gurlitt’s will, told website The Art Newspaper that the exhibition’s planning is “premature.” Werner said she believes “it would be more useful to put better photographs of the collection online and publish all the business letters and documentation that was found in Gurlitt’s homes.”

Meanwhile, David Toren, a 90-year-old New York attorney who escaped Nazi Europe in 1939, recently petitioned the New York State Supreme Court to help him identify the buyers of two works seized from his great uncle in Wrocław, Poland, around 1940, both of which ended up in Gurlitt’s possession, the New York Daily News reported last week. The paintings—Max Liebermann’s “Basket Weavers” and Franz Skarbina’s “Nach House”—were sold by Berlin-based art dealer Villa Grisebach Auctions, which has a Manhattan branch, in 1995 and 2000.

On Monday, Artnet News reported that Toren, through independent investigation, had discovered that “Basket Weavers” was acquired by an Israeli collector. In February, writing in Haaretz, Toren wrote, “Return the stolen art in your possession”; Grisebach has refused to reveal the identities of either buyer, citing client confidentiality.

As for the planned exhibitions in Switzerland and Germany, the two museums are currently unable to set a firm date for the two shows due to the legal issues surrounding Gurlitt’s collection, but they are aiming for this upcoming winter, a Bundeskunsthalle spokesman told The New York Times.

In a statement, the museums said they hope the exhibitions will “contribute to finding clues about the unknown provenance of works.”

Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.