Gary Osen

Heist: The Baffling Story of the Gurlitt Art Trove

Behind the discovery of the looted Jewish-owned treasures lies a sordid tale of Germany's complicity in the crime

The recent disclosure that German authorities seized a cache of more than 1,400 paintings, lithographs, drawings and prints in March 2012 has stunned the art world. The re-discovery of works by Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Toulouse Lautrec and others in the Munich apartment of the 80 year old Cornelius Gurlitt evokes the popular American television program Antiques Roadshow – if it was turned into film noir.

In the excitement and amazement generated by this improbable discovery, there has been an understandable focus on the missing artworks and the search for the heirs of the original owners of these (presumably) stolen works of art, but there are other mysteries about the case that remain hidden in plain sight.

According to media reports, in 2010 Cornelius Gurlitt was stopped during a routine search on a German train traveling from Zurich to Munich and was found with 9.000 Euros in cash in an envelope. He was traveling on an Austrian passport although he is German born. A further inquiry revealed that he did not live in Austria as he had allegedly led officials to believe, but lived in Germany, though some press reports have suggested that German authorities had no record of him. Eventually, German investigators obtained a search warrant for his apartment in Munich and the ensuing search led to the discovery of the collection. Prosecutors later indicated that the paintings had been acquired by several means, ranging from Nazi confiscations from German Museums of “degenerate art” to forced sales by Jewish collectors attempting to flee Germany.

Hildebrand Gurlitt, was a well-known and respected German art historian before World War II. Yet despite having one Jewish grandparent, he became one of only a few art dealers authorized by the Nazi regime to sell artwork on its behalf. After the War, the U.S. Military apparently inventoried at least some part of Gurlitt’s collection but by 1950 it was returned it to him, apparently on the belief that he was a Nazi persecutee rather than the possessor of looted art. Other published stories suggest that he convinced U.S. authorities that his collection was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1945 and that his records of his holdings had also been bombed in Dresden that same year. In 1967, Gurlitt’s widow, Helene, reportedly signed a sworn affidavit, stating that “all our [art] gallery’s documents and the [art] collections of our company were burned in Dresden on 13 February 1945.”The full details from this period remain murky at best.

Yet the story of how Hildebrand Gurlitt and his son managed to maintain and allegedly conceal the collection is only one amazing aspect of the story. Almost equally mysterious is the fact that search of Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment and the discovery of the collection in March 2012 was kept secret by German authorities until the German magazine, Focus, broke the story ten days ago. It forced German prosecutors and customs officials to hold a press conference this past week and acknowledge that they were in fact holding the art works.  Adding to the intrigue, at the press conference in Augsburg, German authorities initially refused to release a list of all the art work that was found, claiming that they did not want to be flooded with claims by possible heirs. Augsburg is a quiet university town known in Germany mainly for its puppet theater. The German prosecutors’ explanations of their conduct of the investigation make little sense legally and suggest a puppet theater of a different kind.

To begin with, whatever criminal case they might theoretically have been developing cannot be adversely affected by disclosing the list of artworks at issue. On the contrary, in the information age, public disclosure of the list can only bring forward information about the history and provenance of the collection. Moreover, art historians and researchers alone cannot disentangle the legal complexities posed by this story. The architecture of German restitution law is highly technical and complex and the integration of the former German Democratic Republic after German reunification adds a further layer of complexity to the legal analysis. Under German law, paintings Gurlitt may have looted from Paris might not fall under the same legal framework as those sold to Gurlitt under duress by a Jewish art dealer in Dresden. To make matters more complicated, artwork sold to Gurlitt under duress by a Jewish art dealer in Dresden might fall under different laws than those that apply to artworks acquired from a  Jewish art dealer in Hamburg because Dresden was located in the former GDR and Hamburg is located in what was once West Germany.

According to published reports, the German Culture Ministry, Finance Ministry, Bavarian government and investigators in Augsburg met on November 8th to discuss steps to speed up provenance research and publish a list of the artworks in question, but unfortunately, having battled the German Finance Ministry for more than two decades in restitution matters, it has been our experience that “transparency” has not been the hallmark of its approach to these matters. In theory, the Gurlitt matter should be referred to the “independent” advisory commission established by Germany to handle controversial looted art claims, but the commission has proven to be far from independent of the German Culture Ministry and it suffered an unmistakable rebuke from the German High Court last year. In 2007, the commission decided that a German museum should keep the famed Sachs Poster Collection seized by the Gestapo in 1938 on the theory that the collector would have wanted the posters to remain in Germany. With that bizarre and self-serving ruling, the advisory commission lost much of its already tenuous credibility.

Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Merkel’s spokesman, said this week that Germany has “to ensure that there is a legal process by which works of art with a questionable origin can be publicized,” but the fact that it has no established mechanism for doing so is incredibly damning. In 1998, the German government committed itself to the Washington Principles that calls on signatories to make “every effort” to “publicize art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted in order to locate its pre-War owners or their heirs.” Fifteen years later, the Gurlitt case, perhaps more than any other, will put Germany’s commitment to the Washington Principles to the test.


About the Author
Gary M Osen is the managing partner of Osen LLC, a boutique litigation firm specializing in terror financing, money-laundering and looted art cases. Mr. Osen has what the Washington Times described as “a penchant for tackling larger-than-life cases” and developing new and creative legal theories that challenge some of the world's largest companies and most powerful governments. The New York Times has recognized him as “an internationally consulted legal authority on terror financing.” He has been quoted and featured in most of the leading newspapers and magazines in the United States and around the world, including Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, the Economist, Der Spiegel and Haaretz.