Causa Gurlitt: Museum of Fine Arts Bern Applies for Certificate of Inheritance

Posted on: March 18, 2015 by

New developments in causa Gurlitt:

The Museum of Fine Arts Bern applied for a certificate of inheritance with the Probate Court in Munich. With this application, the Museum seeks confirmation from the Court that it is the sole legal heir of Cornelius Gurlitt – as it was stated in his will of 9th January 2014. [See § 2353 German Civil Code: The probate court must issue to the heir on application a certificate concerning his right of succession […] (certificate of inheritance).]

This action comes as a response to Gurlitt’s cousin, Uta Werner, requesting a certificate from the Court on 21st November 2014. Werner had claimed that Gurlitt was lacking testamentary capacity when he was making his will, and, as a result, she was the rightful heir on intestacy (and not the Museum). [See § 1926(1) German Civil Code: Heirs on intestacy of the third degree are the grandparents of the deceased and their descendants.] As proof for her allegations she had submitted a psychiatric report from Dr Helmut Hausner stating that Gurlitt was suffering from “a slight dementia, a schizoid personality disorder, and a delusional disorder” while making his will. It’s worth noting that Dr Hausner had never personally met Gurlitt.

The Court will assess both applications in one procedure. An argument supporting the validity of Gurlitt’s will is the fact that it was made by declaration to a notary. [See §§ 2231(1) and 2232 German Civil Code.] Every German notary has a fiduciary duty to assess and document his view of the testamentary capacity of his client before accepting the will. Should the notary be of the firm opinion that the client lacks testamentary capacity, he must reject the will. [See § 11(1) German Notarisation Act: If in the firm opinion of the notary a person lacks the necessary capacity to contract, the notary recording shall be rejected (…). See further § 28 German Notarisation Act.]

It will take months, perhaps even years, until a final judgment has been passed in this inheritance dispute. The time frame of the proceedings will be particularly influenced, if (a) the Court requests a further psychiatric evaluation of Gurlitt and/or (b) one of the parties appeals the judgment.

The uncertainty in the legal ownership of Gurlitt’s art collection has further implications on on-going restitution proceedings. So far, the German Taskforce has confirmed that three paintings of Gurlitt’s art collection had been looted (Femme Assise by Henri Matisse, Two Rider on the Beach by Max Liebermann, and Playing the Piano by Carl Spitzweg). Although the Museum has confirmed that it will return these paintings to their rightful owners, this is not possible at this point in time.

Sources: Gurlitts Erbe: Alles auf Anfang, published on 3Sat Mediathek on 6th March 2015; Berner Kunstmuseum stellt Antrag auf Erbschein für Gurlitt-Erbe, published on Swissinfo on 9th March 2015; Fall Gurlitt: Kunstmuseum Bern stellte Antrag auf Erbschein, published on Der Standard on 9th March 2015.