Swiss museum accepts Gurlitt’s problematic bequest

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Kunstmuseum Bern could face years of litigation from heirs claiming looted works

Kunstmuseum Bern

The trustees of the Kunstmuseum Bern announced today, 24 November, that the museum would accept the bequest of the art collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in May at the age of 81. Since the collection is believed to contain looted works and could open the Swiss museum up to years of litigation, the institution has taken the full six months allowed by German probate law to make the decision about whether to accept or reject the gift. At a press conference held in Berlin, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Bern museum, announced “we take joint responsibility” for the collection with the Bavarian authorities and the Federal Government of Germany. Works that are believed to have been looted will stay in Germany while a team of researchers investigates their provenance, according to the press statement.

The collection, which comprises around 1,300 works by artists including Picasso, Chagall and Renoir, has been mired in controversy. The hoard was discovered in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment in 2012 during a routine tax investigation. More works were unearthed at Gurlitt’s house in Salzburg. The majority of the collection is believed to have been amassed by Gurlitt’s father, the Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. He told US authorities after the war that his collection had been destroyed in Allied bombing.

The president of the Jewish World Congress, Ronald Lauder, warned the Bern museum in a Spiegel interview in November that accepting the bequest would “trigger an avalanche of lawsuits”.

Last week Uta Werner, a cousin of Cornelius Gurlitt, announced that she had submitted a claim in a Munich probate court to the hoard on behalf of the Gurlitt family.

The Bern museum also announced today that it was setting up a provenance research department. It pledged to make a priority responding to loan requests from German museums that owned works that the Nazi’s deemed “degenerate” and so purged from the nation’s public collections.

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