Nazi art: Germany says it has handed over 14 works from Gurlitt trove

Technicians at the Bern Museum of Fine Arts hang a painting by Otto Müller before an exhibition in 2017 © Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

German authorities have now handed over all 14 works from the art trove accumulated by Cornelius Gurlitt that are proven to have been looted under Nazi rule, the government said.

This content was published on January 14, 2021 - 16:48

Piano Playing, a drawing by Carl Spitzweg, was handed over to Christie’s auction house on Tuesday at the request of the heirs of its rightful owner, Henri Hinrichsen.

The work was seized from Hinrichsen, a Jewish music publisher, in 1939. The following year it was bought by Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who traded in works confiscated by the Nazis. Hinrichsen was killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942.

The reclusive Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in 2014, had squirrelled away more than 1,200 works in his Munich apartment and a further 250 or so at a property in Salzburg. He inherited much of the collection from his father.

The collection was unearthed by chance in 2012, 15 months after German custom officers carried out a routine search of passengers on a train from Switzerland and found 77-year-old Gurlitt with €9,000 (CHF9,700) in cash – just below the €10,000 reporting limit. 

The German authorities, suspecting he was a tax dodger, entered his flat and were stunned to find it packed with masterpieces by artists such as Picasso, Renoir and Matisse whose value has been estimated at several hundred million francs.  

Provenance research

After Gurlitt’s death in 2014, the Bern Museum of Fine Arts was appointed sole heir – to its great surprise – and took charge of the estate. In an agreement with Germany, it was stipulated that provenance research would be carried out in Germany. Bern undertook to make a substantial contribution to this research.

In 2017 the Bern Museum of Fine Arts became the first museum in Switzerland to open a department for provenance research.

A trickle of works has been handed back in recent years as the painstaking process of provenance research made gradual progress.

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