Mu­seum seeks works’ heirs for Nazi-era art trove ex­hi­bi­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

BERN — A Swiss mu­seum di­rec­tor pre­par­ing for a Naziera art col­lec­tion’s long-awaited pub­lic un­veil­ing later this year said Fri­day that her goal re­mains find­ing heirs to any works that may have been looted from Jewish own­ers.

Bern Mu­seum of Fine Arts head Nina Zim­mer, who took own­er­ship of 150 draw­ings, lith­o­graphs and paint­ings this week ahead of an ex­hi­bi­tion slated to be­gin in Novem­ber, said re­search shows none of these were stolen by Na­tional So­cial­ists.

But ques­tions linger over the prove­nance of some of the col­lec­tion’s pieces still in Ger­many, where a 2012 raid by author­i­ties on a Mu­nich apart­ment pro­duced a sen­sa­tion: 1,500 lon­glost works by mod­ern mas­ters, in­clud­ing Pablo Pi­casso, Otto Dix and Henri Matisse.

“Ev­ery resti­tu­tion is a vic­tory for us,” Zim­mer said in an in­ter­view, while ac­knowl­edg­ing such prove­nance sleuthing re­mains un­pre­dictable. “I can­not make any prom­ises.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, the Bun­deskun­sthalle in Bonn, Ger­many, is also plan­ning to dis­play items from the col­lec­tion, which to date has pro­duced only five works con­firmed to have been stolen by the Nazis.

Four have been re­turned to heirs, so far, in­clud­ing a Matisse por­trait, Sit­ting Woman, that be­longed to Paris-based col­lec­tor Paul Rosen­berg.

Be­fore its dis­cov­ery five years ago, the mas­sive trove was hid­den for years in the Ger­man and Aus­trian homes of Cor­nelius Gurlitt.

His art-dealer fa­ther, Hilde­brand, amassed it af­ter be­ing en­listed by the Nazis to sell so-called “de­gen­er­ate” mod­ern art they had seized from Ger­man mu­se­ums.

Though orig­i­nal es­ti­mates for the col­lec­tion’s value top­ping $1 bil­lion were likely ex­ag­ger­ated, ex­perts said, the find is still spec­tac­u­lar.

“It is the most im­por­tant cache of art from the Nazi era to be found in pri­vate hands since the im­me­di­ate post­war pe­riod,” said Jonathan Petropou­los, a Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege his­tory pro­fes­sor in Cal­i­for­nia.

When Cor­nelius Gurlitt died aged 81 in 2014, he named the Bern mu­seum as bene­fac­tor. It ac­cepted, on the con­di­tion works whose lin­eage was un­clear must re­main in Ger­many.

The Bern mu­seum is now work­ing with the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion, which tracks Nazi era art thefts, to un­ravel the col­lec­tion’s murky past, though not ev­ery­one is pleased with the progress.

Christo­pher Marinello, a lawyer who helped Rosen­berg’s heirs re­cover their lost Matisse in 2015, said the pace of re­search has been glacial — even af­ter he pro­vided Ger­man re­searchers with “full and com­plete prove­nance on a sil­ver plat­ter”, he said.

“In­ter­nal and gov­ern­men­tal bu­reau­cracy in Ger­many is quite out of con­trol,” Marinello said in an email on Fri­day.

“There is an in­her­ent lack of sym­pa­thy for the vic­tims of Nazi loot­ing.”

The Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion, which took over from a pre­vi­ous task force last year, con­tends it is mak­ing “pos­i­tive strides” in­clud­ing dig­i­tiz­ing doc­u­ments and mak­ing them avail­able via the coun­try’s Fed­eral Ar­chives.

The foun­da­tion is now scru­ti­niz­ing 1,039 works from Gurlitt’s col­lec­tion, it said, of which 152 have pro­duced some prove­nance ev­i­dence or claims from pos­si­ble heirs that in­di­cate they could be Nazi loot. Its work con­tin­ues un­til De­cem­ber.

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