Dirty dealings: Finding a home for Nazi Germany’s looted masterpieces


Germany has vowed to return hundreds of artworks illegally looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners. Faced with conflicting claims and woolly information, a research team is finding this easier said than done.

“No ifs or buts” – with these words, Germany committed itself to returning the works of Munich-based art collector Cornelius Gurlitt to their original owners on discovering that the masterpieces had been stolen by the Nazis.

An international line-up of investigators has been examining the case for over a year and a half with the goal of uncovering the history of these valuable treasures. A total of 1,497 items are to be scrutinized carefully in a project set to run until the end of the year.

“We are well on our way and will be working under high pressure up until the last day,” Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, head of the task force in charge of the investigation, said in an interview with dpa.

The team has already identified 510 items from the Munich art trove, 507 of which are thought to have been obtained from owners persecuted by the Nazi regime.

Nevertheless, the origins of many of the artworks are expected to remain a mystery.

Gurlitt, who died last year, was detained by customs officials on a train in 2010 carrying a large sum of cash he had received for the sale of one of his paintings. A subsequent investigation showed that he had his Munich apartment stashed with more than 1,250 works that had been thought lost after they were expropriated by the World War II-era Nazi government of Germany.

A further 250 pieces were found in a later raid on his neglected house in the Austrian city of Salzburg near the German border, including paintings by Picasso, Renoir and Monet.

The collection had belonged to his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was one of the most significant art dealers in Nazi Germany despite his part-Jewish heritage. He used his position to develop his own private collection.

The task force has so far conclusively proven four cases of theft or obtainment under duress from Jewish owners. Green politician Sepp Duerr criticized the project’s paltry results. “The embarrassment couldn’t be greater,” he said.

Berggreen-Merkel’s figures look somewhat different. Each of the 499 suspicious objects from the art collection is to have an accompanying report by the end of October.

“We have put together everything that we have found worldwide in archives, databases, catalogues and other documents,” she said. “However, in cases where we did not get any further or where there are no historical sources, there is no result.”

The 15-strong team of investigators, including experts from France, Israel and the US, repeatedly came up against unexpected problems while carrying out their research. For many of the artworks they found no traces whatsoever. In other cases, several people claimed ownership of the same painting. Others could give no information on the family heirloom that had supposedly belonged to their relatives. Many documents were lost when people fled or were deported.

“Particularly with competing claims, our judgement must be airtight,” Berggreen-Merkel said. “If we were to make a mistake, it would lead to another repossession.”

Culture Minister Monika Gruetters has announced plans to exhibit the artworks on completion of the investigation in the newly established German Centre for Lost Cultural Property in Magdeburg in central Germany. Further details were not given.

Gruetters also plans to display the looted masterpieces in Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle museum at the end of next year.

But the future of the collection depends on the outcome of a ongoing disagreement over the bequeathal of the art trove. Will the art museum in Bern inherit the works, as Gurlitt laid out in his will? Or will Gurlitt’s cousin Uta Werner continue to fight for her family’s right to keep them?

The high court in Munich is currently examining Werner’s claims that Gurlitt was not competent when he made the final changes to his will. A final decision is unlikely to be made until next year.

Both sides have agreed to return the looted works to their rightful owners – but not before the investigatory team finds out who they are.