The return of Nazi looted art to its rightful owners and their heirs has been fraught with complications. It takes a formidable amount of research to determine who the original owners were, how exactly the art changed hands and the identity of heirs, who might not even be aware that they are entitled to the art, as reported by the Boston Globe. The issue has been the genesis of many court cases, claims and counterclaims that often take years to resolve, and in many cases, there is stalemate. The Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art was formed in 1998 to facilitate the resolution of this issue.
Now Switzerland, a country which has often cooperated with harboring bank accounts and other property of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, is turning the tables and participating in the search for the rightful owners and their heirs. The controversy began when Kunstmuseum Bern initially accepted 200 works of art from the Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt was an art dealer commissioned by Hitler to put together a collection for his proposed Fuhrermuseum. Although Hitler condemned such artwork as “decadent, ” he apparently wanted to have them on display in his museum. After the war, Gurlitt kept his collection a secret; among the paintings are works by Picasso, Matisse and others, and the estimated value is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The collection was discovered by the German government when Cornelius was investigated for tax evasion. He died in 2014 at the age of 81.
Cornelius left his collection to the Kuntsmuseum, but the museum was doubtful about whether it should accept the bequest or not. In spite of the complexity of determining the original owners of each piece, the museum has hired a team of experts to try to return the artwork to the rightful owners. Christopher A. Marinello, directory of private art recovery international, said this move is a “game changer for the way cultural institutions handle this in future.” Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Jewish claims conference, said this could “set an example for other countries in Europe. This is an opportunity to say, ‘We haven’t always been upfront in the past, but here we are taking the moral lead.”