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Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel , a former deputy culture minister, was on the Berlin S -bahn commuter train on her way to Ikea to buy a ‘Billy’ bookshelf when she received a call on her mobile phone  that would put an abrupt end to her peaceful retirement from a long career in public service.

The call in 2012 was a request for her to lead an investigation into the cache of artwork that had found in the Munich home of the elderly recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt.No ordinary cache this – it comprised of over 1400 paintings and drawings, with an estimated value of €1 billion! Nazi-looted art – allegedly.

I use the word allegedly because, while most – if not all – of the artwork was obtained from Jews selling their treasures to finance their escape from Nazi Germany or from the museums of vanquished nations, it is not at all certain, whether it was stolen in the  eyes of the law. If the painting was purchased – even for a pittance – it was not stolen, and, if it was sold on at a profit, then the new owner has a legal right to the painting.

Cornelius Gurlitt inherited his collection from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, Hitler’s chief art dealer.  Hickley shows, indeed proves, that Hildebrand played the rules for all their worth.  Acquiring masterpieces for Hitler’s private collection and very different pieces for his own.  Because Hildebrand had a discerning eye and was a great admirer of so-called ‘degenerate’ art – art which the Nazis condemned and would frequently destroy.  Much of the Gurlitt collection was ‘degenerate’ in that sense, and this is what enabled Cornelius to claim after seizure of his collection that it was not stolen, it was saved.

But could he prove that his father had purchased them? Difficult, because Hildebrandt had often claimed that the paperwork was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.  And yet, Hildebrandt had previously been known to lie, which can only mean that some of his collection was obtained illegally.

These are very murky waters, not made any clearer by the ethics.  There is now an international standard which recognises that stolen artworks should be returned to their original owners, provided that their heirs have the documents proving provenance.  But where does that leave the legal rights of those who bought the paintings in good faith – in many cases, public museums in countries all over the world?   This explains the years-long lawsuits that are being contested in many countries. It will be interesting to see what transpires in the most recent lawsuit of Moll vs The National Gallery.

Law vs ethics.  The only resolution seems to be to sell the painting and split the monies between current owner and th claimants.  Which is why many museums have been raising funds to buy back paintings already hanging on their walls.  Plus there are the human tragedies that are often forgotten.  Hinckley, however, places the human stories at the centre of her book: the Jewish community who lost everything and the paintings which are the only ancestral keepsakes they can hope to retrieve. Neither does she forget the wrong committed against Cornelius Gurlitt, a man with obvious mental issues, who lived only to enjoy his art collection.  It appears that the German authorities confiscated it illegally, and now that Gurlitt has died, with no heirs, his collection remains in storage.  The authorities have no idea what to do with it.

Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.

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