Looted Art

Time for Museums to Accept Guilt

Wilhelm Lachnit: «Mann und Frau am Fenster», or man and woman at a window, 1923.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    German cultural policy has learned from the Gurlitt case that stolen art requires proper restitution, yet many museums continue to be ignore the issue.

  • Facts


    • Cornelius Gurlitt inherited over 1,500 drawings and paintings from his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi-era Art dealer.
    • Gurlitt intended to restore all stolen art to their rightful Jewish owners.
    • During the Third Reich, more than 20,000 pieces of art considered degenerate were confiscated from German museums and later sold.
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First, Cornelius Gurlitt was called a deceitful old man who was protecting a Nazi trove. Then he was seen as a victim of the public prosecutor’s arbitrariness. Finally, he was declared certifiably insane.

Now, six months after his death, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer can only be seen as a surprising role model.

After initial reluctance, Mr. Gurlitt agreed shortly before his death to have his inheritance of more than 1,500 drawings and paintings examined, so that everything that once belonged to Jewish collectors may be returned. In so doing, he recognized how deeply his family was involved in many wrong doings.

At the same time, he demanded that the German state accept its legacy and recognize that stealing paintings and sculptures was not a trivial offense. It was a systematically planned war crime and contributed to the destruction of Jewish life in Germany.

The German state has begun to accept its infamous legacy. It has invested much time, money and diplomatic skills to finally deal with the paintings and sculptures that some call “the last prisoners of war.”

From a legal perspective, however, the Germans are no longer responsible for Mr. Gurlitt’s inheritance. In his will, he bequeathed his entire collection, including the pieces whose origins have yet to be clarified, to the Art Museum Bern in Switzerland. So, legally speaking, the Swiss are now responsible.

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