Forward Thinking

Hoarder Wants 'Nazi' Art Back — Looted or Not

By Rachel Stern

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Art historian Meike Hoffmann speaks to the media regarding the seizure in 2011 of 1,500 paintings from Cornelius Gurlitt in Germany. / Getty Images

It looks like the German lawmakers will be too late.

Cornelius Gurlitt’s spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, announced today that Gurlitt’s lawyers filed a complaint at an Augsburg court, arguing that tax authorities’ seizure of the Gurlitt art collection was disproportionate and asking for the immediate return of the reportedly Nazi-looted works.

“In light of the immense public interest and political debate, we have a reasonable concern about the legality of this process,” defense attorney Derek Setz said. Is it irony or intent that this complaint was filed last Friday — the same day that a bill proposing retroactive abolition of the statute of limitations for claims on Nazi-looted art was filed and accepted to be discussed by the Upper House of the German Parliament?

In September 2010, customs officers caught Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Nazi-dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, on a train from Zurich to Munich, carrying €9,000 in cash. Nothing illegal there. But the fact that he had traveled to Zurich the same morning, together with his nervous behavior, initiated a court-ordered tax investigation in 2011, which led to the 2012 search of Gurlitt’s home and the seizure of about 1,400 works of art by the authorities. The case became public in November 2013 through a leak to the German magazine Focus.

Cornelius Gurlitt remained silent for a long time. But that has changed since the German court appointed the lawyer Christoph Edel as his preliminary custodian in December 2013. On January 14, 2014, Edel announced Gurlitt’s legal team: the criminal defense lawyers Professor Tido Park and Derek Setz, and civil defense lawyer Dr. Hannes Hartung. By January 30, a criminal complaint against a person or persons unknown was filed by Professor Tido Park and Derek Setz with the chief public prosecutor’s office in Munich. “Mr. Gurlitt finds it totally unacceptable that confidential details of the investigation have been leaked to the press and that his personal privacy has therefore been seriously violated. This represents a flagrant breach of official secrecy,” commented Professor Park on the criminal complaint.

On February 10, Christoph Edel turned over 60 additional paintings from Gurlitt’s Salzburg house to the German authorities for investigation and safekeeping. The next day, the website www.gurlitt.info was launched by his legal team, aiming to add “objective information” to the heated debate.

And now Gurlitt wants the art back. The February 14 complaint against the search of Gurlitt’s house and the seizure of his art collection asks for immediate return of the artwork to Gurlitt. The 45-page-long complaint is based on formal mistakes in the court ruling and improbable cause. It claims that the principle of proportionality has been violated by seizing his whole art collection based on a claim of import-tax evasion. His lawyer, Tido Park, stresses, “Mr. Gurlitt and his defense lawyers are very aware of the moral dimension of this case. However, the criminal proceedings are not the right place for moral categories.”

And they are right. It would be extremely painful to see all the art — including the art stolen from Jews — returned to Cornelius Gurlitt. But it was clear from the beginning that some legal mistakes have been made in the dealings with Cornelius Gurlitt. Injustice can’t be answered with questionable proceedings.

Where are the laws forcing Cornelius Gurlitt to return the stolen art? Where are the laws forcing private collectors and public collections and institutions in Germany to investigate and return stolen art? It is not right to return stolen art to Gurlitt, just because other private or public collections in Germany are holding more stolen art than Gurlitt and are not returning it either, as Gurlitt’s attorney Hartung complains. Almost 70 years after the Nazi rule, it is high time for Germany to enforce the investigation, research and return of art stolen by the Nazis.

Rachel Stern is an independent writer and curator living in New York. She currently works on a retrospective of the German Jewish Expressionist Fritz Ascher (Berlin, 1893-1970).


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