Swiss museum accepts Nazi-era art collection

The Kunstmuseum Bern, along with German authorities, will painstakingly research each piece of art in the massive collection bequeathed by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi art dealer.
By Gabrielle Levy  |  Nov. 24, 2014 at 12:11 PM
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BERN, Switzerland, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- A Swiss museum has agreed to accept part of a massive trove of art that belonged to the son of a Nazi art dealer, while working to determine whether some of the pieces were stolen.

Cornelius Gurlitt, a German recluse who died in May at the age of 81, made the Kunstmuseum Bern the sole heir of 1,280 works of fine art amassed by his father, a dealer designated by the Nazis to buy and sell works classified as "degenerate."

"This wasn't an easy decision for us and there were no shouts of joy," said Christoph Schaeublin, president of the Kunstmuseum board of trustees.

Schaeublin said the museum would work with German and Bavarian authorities to determine the provenance of each work.

"Any works of art deemed to be looted art will never darken the doorstep of [the museum]," Schaeublin said, "not even touch Swiss territory."

The collection includes works by Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and numerous others. As many as 500 works from the collection could go on display as soon as next year, while others would be returned to the heirs of their previous owners.

In one case, the Henri Matisse painting Sitting Woman, worth more than $20 million, will be returned to the heirs of art collector Paul Rosenberg.

Gurlitt's collection was discovered by Bavarian authorities during a tax investigation, but only made public last year by a report in the German magazine Focus. The pieces have been in the custody of German authorities since Gurlitt died.

Jewish groups were divided on whether the museum ought to accept the inheritance.

Ronald Lauder, head of the Jewish World Congress, said doing so might open "a Pandora's Box and cause an avalanche of lawsuits" as Gurlitt's relatives questioned the bequest.

Others suggested the art provided a unique opportunity for the art world and for Germany.

This is an opportunity for the Swiss to stand up and do the right thing and set example for other countries in Europe," in clarifying the provenance of the paintings before accepting them, said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Jewish Claims Conference. "This is an opportunity to say we haven't always been up front in the past, but here we are taking the moral lead."

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