Art Law Report

Germany Identifies Painting from Gurlitt Collection as Nazi-Looted, Progress and Credibility Still Uncertain

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on October 25, 2017 at 3:28 PM

Only Sixth Work Revealed As Looted Since 2013

The Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (the German Center for Cultural Property Losses) issued a press release today that an additional work from the collection of the late Cornelius Gurlitt is a Nazi-looted object.  The release (available in English and in German) identifies Portrait of a Seated Young Woman (Porträt einer sitzenden jungen Frau) by the French artist Thomas Couture as one that the Nazis took from Resistance member Georges Mandel.  The painting is only the sixth work that the various iterations of the Task Force has made a finding on since the surprising disclosure in November 2013 of the roughly 1,200 works found in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment and the 200-odd works later retrieved from Gurlitt’s home in Salzburg (Austria).

The press release is remarkable in certain ways discussed below, but first to the substance. Mandel was a Jewish politician who was detained by the Germans, and murdered in a camp in 1944.  Postwar records described a painting that had been taken from Mandel before he was arrested (possibly by Rose Valland, reads today’s press release, though without citation and thus perhaps just name-dropping speculation) that had such a hole as well.  Other records from the time of the Occupation itself confirm that Couture’s property and art collection was targeted and seized.  On this basis the task force (now referred to as the “Gurlitt Provenance Research Project,” prior iternations including the wonderfully passive voice "Taskforce Schwabinger Kunstfund" or "Schwabing Art Find Taskforce," as though the works were found with no agency and no possesor) concluded that the work was Couture’s and that it should be restituted.

That is the good news.  The rest is more complicated.  This is just the sixth object identified for restitution.  It is the first public statement by the German government about a decision on objects under review in over a year, however, and the first of any kind in months.  While public preparations are underway to exhibit the portion of Gurlitt’s collection that was not sent to the Kunstmuseum Bern have been loudly trumpeted, less so the actual research.

An important point of clarification is in order.  Matching historical records from multiple eras with physical observations about restoration is a perfect example of why provenance research is hard to predict.  And other than the confusing statements from the Bavarian government around the time that Gurlitt’s homes were seized, there is very little objective information for the public to assess the likelihood that additional works under review are tainted, or not.  Putting aside the widely speculative reports from 2013, it was Bavaria itself that raised the alarm that some of the works might have been looted by the Nazis, but it was never followed with the slightest bit of transparency about why that initial assessment was made (or made public), or what the methodology would be moving forward.  It is entirely possible that most of the works still under review were looted.  It is equally important to recognize that it is possible that none of them were.  And it is most likely that the answers in many cases will be inconclusive.

Those probabilities are not anyone’s fault, they are the reality of investigating cases where the most important witnesses were often murdered 70-80 years ago.  But the Gurlitt story is now four years old.  There is simply no way to evaluate the information that comes out of the Bavarian or German governments because every communication is a tiny segment of the whole.  After four years, there is just no credibility.

Case in point, back to today’s press release.  Words are important, and the defensive tone of the statement is jarring.  Everyone knows that far too much time has passed.  Yet the first name mentioned is not one of the experts doing the research, it is Monika Grütters, Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media.  As with the creation of the Deutsches Zentrum in the first instance (a good step, but a Band-Aid at best), or the deal with the Kunstmuseum Bern, or last year’s disastrous cultural property law (Kulturgutschutzgesetz), the release is focused on personalities, not issues.  The Rose Valland reference is a little cute.  And, as ever, there is zero indication of what anyone should expect in the future. 

Lastly, it is worth noting that the release touts the fact that a claimant to the painting has been advised of the work.  But one of the longstanding problems with restitution is when the onus is put on the claimants.  Did this claimant see the work listed because he or she was looking for it?  Did the Deutsches Zentrum reach out proactively?  It is anyone’s guess, and that remains a big part of the problem.

Topics: Cornelius Gurlitt, Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, Gurlitt Task Force, Nazi-looted art, Munich, Salzburg, NS Raubkunst, Kulturgutschutzgesetz, Kunstmuseum Bern, Monika Grütters, Taskforce Schwabinger Kunstfund, German Center for Cultural Property Losses, Portrait of a Seated Young Woman, Porträt einer sitzenden jungen Frau, Thomas Couture, Georges Mandel, Rose Valland

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