In recent news regarding the Munich art trove, the Bavarian authorities and the German culture minister have released a statement demonstrating that Cornelius Gurlitt is committed to voluntarily returning any looted art that had been found in his apartment in 2012 to the heirs of the despoiled owners.
This forms part of the gradual acceptance on the part of Gurlitt that he return these works – at least on moral grounds. In exchange, he will now be able to secure the return from the Augsburg prosecutor within one year of those works belonging to him still held by the authorities.
Claims to certain works of art have been presented to Gurlitt and his ‘team’ (his legal guardian and legal representatives) on behalf of the Rosenberg, Littmann, Friedmann and Glaser heirs. The Paul Rosenberg heirs are claiming Seated Woman by Henri Matisse (although another claim to this work has recently been raised). The Ismar Littman heirs are claiming two works by Otto Dix, including a hitherto unknown self-portrait. The David Friedmann heirs are claiming Riders on the Beach by Liebermann. The Glaser heirs are claiming a number of other works.
As for the legal grounds of restitution, the situation remains unclear. The German parliament has been considering the amendments to the BGB (the German Civil Code) overriding the 30-year longstop limitation period that would otherwise make any legal claim for the return of works from Gurlitt time barred beyond 30 years of the initial dispossession.
Even so, the new provision of the BGB, referred to by some as the Lex Gurlitt, would not apply if the current possessor of property (in theory, this is Gurlitt, although the Augsburg prosecutor is still in possession of all works seized from the Munich apartment) had acquired the property ‘in good faith’. Such a change may not therefore have its intended effect, so long as Gurlitt had inherited the works in good faith…
However, if Gurlitt does return the disputed works to the various heirs for reasons of morality (or public opinion), then the amendments to the BGB would serve no purpose – at least in regards to the present case.
These issues and more will be discussed in the article ‘Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Monuments Men and The Discovery of the Munich Art Trove’ in the forthcoming issue of Art Antiquity and Law.