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Kunstmuseum Bern Exhibition traces origin of artworks

The Kunstmuseum Bern is aiming to lead the way for Swiss museums in provenance research, a decision prompted by its inheritance of Cornelius Gurlitt’s controversial collection. With its exhibition “New Masters”, it is coming clean on its own stash of art.

“New Masters” will trace the routes paintings by artists such as Franz Marc, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee and Otto Dix took to enter the Kunstmuseum’s collection. Of 525 artworks acquired by the museum after 1933 and produced before 1945, there are gaps in the ownership history of 337, the Berner Zeitung reported. The museum plans to begin a provenance research project this year, Kunstmuseum director Matthias Frehner told the newspaper. This is “an enormous task,” he said.

Some artworks may eventually need to be returned to heirs of the original pre-war owners. One Kirchner painting, for example – “Dunes and Sea”, acquired by the Kunstmuseum in the year 2000 – was seized from a German museum as part of the Nazi campaign against “degenerate art”. While artworks that belonged to German museums are not subject to restitution claims, researchers are investigating whether this particular painting was a loan from a private owner who should therefore get it back.

The museum is still waiting to hear whether it will inherit Cornelius Gurlitt’s controversial art collection. When Cornelius Gurlitt died in 2014, he bequeathed about 1,500 artworks that he had stashed in his two homes to the Kunstmuseum. An elderly cousin challenged his will and a Munich court has yet to rule on whether Gurlitt, who inherited the hoard from his father, was mentally fit enough to draw up a testament.

The Kunstmuseum has said it wants nothing to do with any works in the collection that are suspected of being looted by the Nazis. So far, five artworks in the Gurlitt cache have been identified as Nazi plunder and recommended for restitution to the original Jewish owners.

The Bern museum is teaming up with the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn to organise a dual exhibition of the Gurlitt collection to open this winter and run into 2017.

(Text: Catherine Hickley. Follow the author on Twitter: CathyHickleyexternal link. Hickley is the author of The Munich Art Hoard, which tells the extraordinary story of the Gurlitt Collection.)

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