Looted Art

A Disputed Legacy

Matisse Quer
Matisse's Woman Sitting in a Chair ia part of the Gurlitt collection.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The acceptance of the Gurlitt collection by a Swiss museum brings up essential questions of ownership of looted art.

  • Facts


    • The Gurlitt collection contains over more than 1400 works of art.
    • Constantin Gurlitt died earlier this year and bequeathed his art collection to the Museum of Fine Art in Bern, Switzerland.
    • The museum has accepted Mr. Gurlitt’s collection, even though a part of it may contain looted works of art.
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The Museum of Fine Arts in Bern this morning announced its decision to accept a controversial art collection previously owned by Cornelius Gurlitt.

Together with the German government and the state of Bavaria, the museum said it will take on the collection, even though it may contain works of art which were stolen from their original owners during World War II. 

The museum said it wants to uphold its “historical responsibility” and return any looted art to its owners, or to the German government. 

The collection is believed to contain many paintings that were part of the Nazis’ campaign against what they called ‘degenerate art’ as well as art which may have been looted.

Mr. Gurlitt had bequeathed his collection to the museum in Bern, but given the controversial history of many of the works, it was unclear whether the museum would accept the gift.

Mr. Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was one of four art traders employed by the Nazis. Appointed by Joseph Goebbels, he was charged with marketing works of art abroad which the Nazis had seized.

These works encompassed pieces by French Fauve artist Henri Matisse to  German Bauhaus painter Paul Klee. After the war, Mr. Gurlitt had told the United States’ army that his collection had been destroyed in the fire of Dresden in 1945.

But in early 2012, over one thousand works were seized by the Bavarian authorities from his son Cornelius’ apartment.

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