Today it was announced: the Bern Museum takes the heavy legacy of the collection Gurlitt – but on its terms.
The museum will only accept the works of art whose provenance is clearly no looted art. These works of art are to remain in Germany. The Task Force headed by Ingeborg Bergreen Merkel will therefore continue to examine the source of the works of art. Culture Minister Monika Grütters (CDU) secured a return of artwork to potential victims. The federal government pays the costs of any litigation. If an examined artwork turns out not to be stolen art or a restitution request was declined, the image goes to Switzerland. In unclear cases, the Bern Museum reserves the right to decide on an assumption. So there is still much work for provenance researchers to do. This process can take – considering the amount of artworks – years.
The 440 works of “degenerate art”, who were in the Gurlitt collection, and the works of art that have been made by relatives of Hildebrand Gurlitt, go directly to Bern. Likewise, the works of art that were integrated in the collection after 1945, according to media reports. This is to short sighted in my opinion as a criterion for a clarified provenance: A work of art that was purchased in the 1950s by Gurlitt, may still earlier, during the Nazi era persecution, have been removed illegally – regardless of whether Gurlitt was aware of it or not. Here the Bernese museum could face further restitution requests.
Overall, however, it is to be welcomed that the artworks are now integrated in a public collection, and thus are open to the general public. On the one hand some forgotten, long time no seen or even completely unknown art works of great masters are waiting to be (re)discovered. On the other hand also possible victims is thus given the opportunity to find these works of art – this is in a closed, unpublished private collection of course not possible.
How should a museum handle possibly stolen art in its collection?
With the Washington Declaration, the museums of the signatory States are supposed to examine their collections on looted art cases. It should be made transparent when works of art are suspected to be looted in the Nazi era. The potential victims should be given the opportunity to recognize their artwork to approach the current owners with their application for restitution.
The works of art must not be displayed separately in the exhibition. A designation for example on the website of the museum would be very helpful.
In Germany the Lost Art Database acts as a central database: Each museum reports its results of provenance research at Lost Art, claimants are looking for their works of art.
How is such a collection changing the character of the art museum?
In the Gurlitt-case it is quite a large inheritance, which the Museum Bern takes up. However, the exact contents are not known, a large part of the collection are graphic works of very different quality. It remains to be seen how the Gurlitt heritage fits into the existing collection and how many works can be permanently exhibited anyway, in terms of content, art historical perspective, but also for reasons of space capacity or the sensitivity of the material. The history of this inheritance will keep the museum certainly busy for a while and put it in the media focus for a certain time. Maybe they will – if not already – also undergo the existing collection a more precise provenance research. Moreover, it will bring a rush of visitors to the museum, at least in the first time: many are curious as to what art was in the Gurlitt collection, because so far only highlights have been seen.
The case Gurlitt shows that almost 70 years after the war the possession transitions of works of art are far from being enlightened. It is quite conceivable that more works have survived the years in a private collection – though certainly such a great discovery will no longer be made. However, provenance research is a topic that will be of importance in museums and the art market for quite a while.