Art Law Report

Pissarro from Cornelius Gurlitt’s Salzburg Home Returned to Heirs

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on May 24, 2017 at 11:29 AM

News Accompanied by Deafening Silence About Ongoing Restitution Policy Failures

The German government announced recently that it had returned an additional work of art found in the Salzburg home of Cornelius Gurlitt in connection with the 2013 revelation of Gurlitt’s trove of art originally in the possession of his late father Hildebrand.  La Seine, vue du Pont-Neuf, au fond le Louvre by Camille Pissarro (1902) has been returned to the heirs of Max Heilbronn, from whom it was taken in 1942 in France.  The accompanying announcement was of a piece with the ongoing fiasco of the Gurlitt affair: a press release touting the personal involvement of Germany’s Minister of Culture Monika Grütters, a self-serving but vague statement about commitments to restitution, and absolutely no explanation or update about what is happening to the hundreds of additional paintings and objects under investigation.  The press release was also sure to mention an upcoming exhibition of Gurlitt collection works later this year.  In sum, the announcement confirms precisely the opposite of its intended effect.


There has been little Gurlitt news in a long time, so a brief recap is in order.  Hildebrand Gurlitt had been an authorized during the Nazi era to sell “degenerate art” of which the government disapproved, and Hildebrand’s possessions thus raise numerous suspicions.  Hildebrand’s activities in France during the Occupation are of particular concern because unlike much of the “degenerate art” that was sold—which was taken from German state museums in many instances—anything acquired in France during that time by German actors is problematic at best because it came from individual (often Jewish) victims.  Hildebrand was flatly deceitful with the occupying Allies after the war, and managed to retain possession or even have returned looted works while claiming that his property had been destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden. The artworks stayed in the Gurlitt family thereafter, sold off piecemeal from time to time to support Cornelius, who it appears never worked or even left his home very much.

The Task Force was created quickly after the disclosure in late 2013 of the massive trove of art seized from Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich. It was incorporated into the agreement that Gurlitt made with Bavaria before he died to allow the examination of the provenance of those 1,280-odd works, as well as the few hundred in his house in Salzburg, Austria (where this painting was found). After his surprising decision to name the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland as his sole heir, that museum, Bavaria, and Germany announced an agreement that the Task Force would continue its work and the museum would not take possession of works deemed to have been looted.  Challenges to the Gurlitt will have been rebuffed and the bequest to the Swiss museum upheld.  An exhibition is planned later this year to show the works not suspected of being looted—but according to whom and by what criteria remains a mystery.

The Pissarro was identified for restitution just over two years ago.  That alone is notable, what was that delay for?  As we have said many times, the scholarly work of the members of the Task Force is to be distinguished from the larger political failures of the government.  For example, the fifth public recommendation by the Task Force in late 2015 about an Adolf von Menzel drawing (which was returned earlier this year) applied properly the presumptions and principles of the Washington Principles on Nazi Confiscated Art, principles whose existence the German government gleefully touts so long as no one questions whether it is actually following them. 

To read only the press release issued by the German Center for Lost Art (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste), one would come away with the impression that remarkable work had been done at breakneck speed.  Minister Grütters is quoted as saying “It is good that we can return this work,” and further “We owe it to the victims of the Nazis and their descendants, because behind the history of every work of art there is a human history.”  Quite true, but actions speak louder than words.  And more than five years after the collection was found in Gurlitt’s apartment, the number of works restituted can still be counted on one hand, while the congratulatory press releases and photographs number in the hundreds.  Not much progress. 

Nor is any of this happening in a vacuum.  As readers know, we represent the plaintiffs in the litigation over the Guelph Treasure (or Welfenschatz) in Berlin, which was recently the subject of a ruling that Germany is subject to the jurisdiction in U.S. courts.  Germany has appealed.  In a recent filing concerning whether all of Germany’s arguments should proceed on appeal (rather than just the jurisdictional questions under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act), Germany repeated its usual litany of false outrage that anyone would question its commitment to the Washington Principles.  Yet in beating that drum, Germany made a disturbing “nice principles you’ve got there, it would be a shame if anything happened to them” kind of argument.  Having claimed disingenuously in every conceivable forum that the recommendations of its non-binding Advisory Commission cannot be questioned, the Germans’ filing implies that if Germany cannot have its way, then maybe the Washington Principles are not worth the trouble:

After all, if a foreign government chooses to follow the U.S.-spearheaded Washington Principles, and spends significant amounts of time and money creating the sort of alternative dispute resolution mechanism encouraged by the Washington Principles, and staffs the mechanism with some of its most esteemed jurists, and hears disputes on the merits, only to learn afterwards that the losing party can cross an ocean and file a federal lawsuit against that nation in the United States, then there is a real risk that the nation would ask itself why it should follow the Washington Principles.

Germany carefully phrases this to suggest that of course it is other countries that it is concerned will move away from the principles, but that merely begs the question.  And, of course, the incentive created by the risk of facing litigation in the United States is to do it right in the first place, a conclusion which no one except Germany currently ascribes to the Advisory Commission or its abject failures concerning Gurlitt. 

Topics: Guelph Treasure, Cornelius Gurlitt, Germany, Nazi-looted art, Washington Conference Principles, Hildebrand Gurlit, Gurlitt, NS Raubkunst, Kunstmuseum Bern, Monika Grütters, Taskforce Schwabinger Kunstfund, Welfenschatz, Minister of Culture, Gurlitt Taskforce

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About the Blog

The Art Law Report provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the museum and visual arts communities. It is authored by Nicholas M. O'Donnell, partner in our Art & Museum Law Practice.

The material on this site is for general information only and is not legal advice. No liability is accepted for any loss or damage which may result from reliance on it. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.

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