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Nazi-Looted Art Trove Willed to Swiss Museum

Cornelius Gurlitt, who died Tuesday, leaves massive collection of contested art

by
Stephanie Butnick
May 07, 2014
(Kunstmuseum Bern)

(Kunstmuseum Bern)

When German recluse Cornelius Gurlitt died yesterday, he left behind a massive trove of Nazi-looted art recently discovered by German authorities, who with the help of art experts were beginning the process of returning the masterpieces, by artists like Matisse and Chagall, to the heirs of their rightful owners. Now, however, according to Gurlitt’s will, the entirety of his contested art collection—which he inherited from his father, who Hitler tasked with dealing with “degenerate art,” and which is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion—has been bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern Switzerland, known as the Kunstmuseum Bern, an institution with which the 81-year-old had previously had no relationship.

The museum, it seems, is as surprised as anyone. They issued a statement about the unexpected development, which they described as a “bolt from the blue.”

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.

While it’s unclear what happens next legally, and whether Gurlitt’s will can override German authorities, who just last month reached an agreement with Gurlitt’s lawyers allowing a team of international experts to continue researching the provenance of the paintings. Since the collection was discovered during an ongoing tax evasion investigation, the German government could have some sort of legal upper hand in deciding what happens next to the collection.

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.