Gurlitt task force wraps up with ‘meager’ results

162 works suspected to be Nazi loot, but just five have been identified as definite plunder


The German task force assigned to investigate the provenance of almost 1,500 works found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment and his Salzburg home said research conducted on 162 works in the collection indicates that they were looted by the Nazis, though just five of them have been definitively identified as stolen from Jewish families and recommended for restitution.

In its final report, published on 14 January, the task force led by Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel said the provenance of only 13 works has so far been definitively established. Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, called its progress “meagre and not satisfactory”. In addition to the five already identified as plunder, two further works were very likely to have been looted, while six had definitely not been stolen, the task force said.

Research on the Gurlitt trove will be taken up by the newly established Stiftung Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation). Wrapping up its work after two years, the task force identified as a priority for future research the 162 works of art where the evidence suggests they were plundered. They include a Rembrandt print and drawings by Georges Seurat and Delacroix.

Lauder said he “expected Germany to do better, given that time is running out”. He criticised the management of the task force and said: “Waiting longer is not a credible option but a slap in the face of the claimants.”

The task force had already ruled out 507 works as looted because they were either by members of Gurlitt’s family, were gifts to Gurlitt family members from the artists, or were seized from German museums in Joseph Goebbels’ rampage against “degenerate art”. The researchers are so far still unable to determine whether the remainder were plundered from Jewish collectors.

Berggreen-Merkel was appointed in November 2013 to manage a task force to investigate the collection, which had been seized in 2012 in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment on suspicion of tax evasion. On his death in May 2014, Gurlitt bequeathed his entire collection to the Kunstmuseum in Bern. His cousin Uta Werner is challenging that bequest and a Munich court is expected to rule on whether his will is valid in the coming months.

Gurlitt’s collection was amassed by his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who worked for the Nazis and had access to the market in occupied France and the Netherlands thanks to his role as a buyer for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.

The task force described Hildebrand Gurlitt’s dealings as “marked by discretion, secrecy and deception”. Much of the dealer’s documentation found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s estate has to be treated with scepticism because he often gave incorrect information about the source of his works to trick the authorities and circumvent rules on currency, exports and taxes, or to disguise the true sellers, the report said. The fact that his collection mainly encompasses works on paper makes establishing the provenance more complicated; unlike paintings, prints are not unique and therefore harder to trace.

Hildebrand Gurlitt may himself have been the victim of deception at least once, the task force found. A painting in the collection bearing Marc Chagall’s signature was declared a forgery by the Comité Marc Chagall in Paris last year.