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Disputed art looks for new home

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Before his death, Munich art heir Cornelius Gurlitt willed his collection to a major art museum in Switzerland. The move will spare Germans some headaches, but numerous disputes over the paintings' future home is brewing.

Until his death on May 6, the case surrounding Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Nazi art dealer Hildebrandt Gurlitt, had brought one embarrassment after another to Germany -- not just because of the highly controversial art collection he was hoarding and had kept out of the public light for decades, but also the amateurish way in which officials handled the affair.

First public prosecutors opened a tax-evasion investigation into Gurlitt. Then they seized his art collection and made a pathetic attempt to keep their probe into the works' provenance under wraps. The newsweekly Focus exposed the whole thing in November, prompting officials to appoint a task force to look into the more than 1,000 works of art, even though it seemed to get very little work done.

All this happened under understandable pressure from descendants of Jewish families contesting the ownership of the art.

But the proceedings against the 81-year-old lacked a plan and often seemed legally dubious. In early April, weeks before Gurlitt's death, representatives of the federal government in Berlin and the state of Bavaria, where he resided, managed to convince Gurlitt to sign an agreement. He signed it in bed, wearing a blue bathrobe, his white hair tousled. Under the deal, he agreed to allow research to be conducted into the origins of the works and to give back anything that proved to be looted art to its true owners.

In return, the paintings were returned to him. Officials had hoped the works would sooner or later be bequeathed to the public. Of course it was the German public they had in mind.

Many must have been unpleasantly surprised when they learned that Gurlitt had willed his collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland.

According to reports, Gurlitt was deeply shocked by the way he was treated by the government. And now there are signs his own will and testament won't be respected by the state either.

Last week, officials at the Bavarian state ministry for education, research, culture and art said they would review the collection to determine whether outstanding individual works could be classified as national treasures. This would ban them from export on the basis of a law prohibiting the removal of cultural heritage. The list of protected works in Bavaria currently includes, for example, drawings by Renaissance artist Albrecht Dºrer.

It will be difficult to determine whether Gurlitt's art works are, in fact, important parts of German cultural heritage. A large part of the collection consists of works by the German avant-garde that had been declared "degenerate art" by the Nazis in 1937. Officials had permitted Hildebrandt Gurlitt to deal in these works after they were banned from museums. The paintings would certainly serve as a memorial to the period, but is that purpose enough to prohibit them from being sent abroad?

Austria, incidentally, has announced the approximately 200 paintings found in Salzburg will face equally thorough examinations before they are allowed to be exported.

Matthias Frehner, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts Bern, says the inheritance is, of course, a challenge -- but he seems more excited than concerned. He wants to take a look at the paintings soon. They include numerous works that would be coveted by any museum in the world.

The will would also allow some objects to be sold, which Frehner could imagine doing in order to, for example, pay the inheritance tax, if one is due. That's another question that remains to be answered -- the Swiss may argue Gurlitt's will serves charitable purposes. Frehner sees the stance of the state of Bavaria, which may attempt to prevent the export of select works, as an act of defiance -- but he also understands it.

Otherwise it seems like all of the involved people in Berlin -- the Chancellery as well as the self-appointed task force -- think of Switzerland as a saviour, because it would rid them of a problem: better for there to be a Gurlitt collection in a dignified Bern museum than for there to be, as Munich politicians had imagined, a Gurlitt castle in Bavaria.

During the past week, there has been lots of disagreement between the capital and the Bavarians. But one of the other remaining questions is whether Gurlitt's relatives will go along with all of this. Two of Cornelius Gurlitt's relatives are in favour of the Bern solution, while another has come out against it. The case will be a difficult one.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 A17

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