United States: "Final Report" Of Gurlitt Task Force Presented To German Government—Process Continues To Raise More Questions Than Answers

Last Updated: January 18 2016
Article by Nicholas M. O'Donnell

The chair of the Schwabinger Kunstfund (Gurlitt) Task Force (Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel) presented yesterday a report on behalf of the Task Force to German Minister of Culture Monika Grütters. The larger context of the government's failure to support the expert panel in the stranger-than-fiction story of Cornelius Gurlitt, however, and the complete lack of a commitment from the national government about what will happen now makes this an occasion that is hardly worth the self-congratulation that accompanied the theatrical presentation. The fact that Grütters would portray the last two years as a "political symbol of transparency" is frankly hard to understand, particularly when the future of the expert panel is completely up in the air. Illusory suggestions that the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste will support what's left of it in some unspecified fashion are hard to place stock in, and it's anyone's guess if the members would even want to remain involved.

As with most developments in this case, the key distinction remains between the professional task of the panel, and the overall approach of the German authorities since the revelation two years ago and the discovery nearly four years ago. Because the scholarship, as noted above, has been more or less impeccable when the public is allowed to see it. And the report makes very clear that it is not a legal conclusion or even recommendation, it is the results of provenance research. Provenance research is inconclusive sometimes, and there was clearly impressive provenance research done here (so far). That is neither good nor bad, it is simply a fact.

But it is more than obvious that the authorities are hiding behind that uncertainty by pretending that the answer is to await absolute certainty. Their conduct with the five works that have been conclusively identified as looted art gives the lie to that notion. Even those claimants were or are have been given the runaround before the works were finally handed over.

What it comes down to is this. It's easy to say that looted art will be returned. Who could argue with that? And it lets the government pledge fealty to the Washington Principles and pat itself on the bank. But the idea that the report resolves anything is absurd. Moreover, the German government has a serious fox-guarding-the-henhouse problem with looted art. On occasions too numerous to list here, an internal report is taken as proof of something and that is that. A report is only the beginning. Until the public, and claimants, can examine its conclusions, and the evidence on which it is based, the assertion that the answer has been found lacks all credibility. And make no mistake, idea advanced by Grütters today that the failure to make the process more transparent is rooted in privacy concerns is indefensible. Hildebrand Gurlitt's business are documents of historical importance. He has been dead for 60 years and he was a dealer in Nazi looted art. He has no privacy rights. Who is being protected here?

Yesterday's announcement does reveal significant new information, and like the most recent restitution recommendation of the Task Force, underscores that the actual expert members of the panel have done detailed and exhaustive work with the information available to them.

The Task Force has been examining in detail 499 works from the Munich residence of Cornelius Gurlitt.

  • Of these 499, the Task Force could make a conclusive determination as to the provenance of the works as to only eleven (11).
  • For 152 of the examined works, only "slight" evidence of the provenance.
  • For 143, there was no provenance information available at all.
  • 25 works exhibited "very concrete evidence" of Nazi-persecuted expropriation.
  • 119 works show useful clues such that continued research is the highest priority.
  • 152 have such scant information that further research is the lowest priority.
  • 192 have no information at all, as a result of which no further research was recommended.

The report further identifies the works that fall into the various categories. Unfortunately, the various groupings are given only by inventory number, putting readers to the further burden of looking each on up on the website of the Lost Art Database.

With regard to the objects found in Gurlitt's Salzburg home:

  • 2 works were definitely established, La Seine vue du Pont-Neuf, au fond le Louvre by Camille Pissarro, and an honorary medal for Cornelius Gurlitt (presumably the elder, Hildebrand's father).
  • 47 objects merited a recommendation for further research
  • 6 objects had reference to provenance between 1933 and 1945.
  • 53 objects were some kind of industrial product without provenance.
  • 41 objects were identifiable, but with no provenance information.
  • 90 objects were identifiable with only scant information.
  • 45 works were identifiable and had indications that Nazi-persecution was a possibility.

115 claims have been received, according to the report. The report is 72 pages long and mostly in German (another interesting choice given the claims of transparency), leaving the public at the mercy of secondary sources (we will continue to do our best). As such, I have not read the entire document in detail, though I will. The government thought enough of the international component to make the handful of select provenances included in English, but not the bulk of the analysis. A fact sheet is available in English—which, confusingly, organizes the works into different groupings.

In the meantime, general reactions have been critical and the German government's response largely defensive.

Ronald Lauder, on behalf of the World Jewish Congress, minced no words. Taking explicit issue with Grütters's claim, Lauder bemoaned "the persistent lack of transparency and communication about the work of the task force," and "concern[] that the framework for further research at the German Center for Lost Cultural Goods remains totally unclear." Lauder went on:

We stand ready to assist Germany and the Center in its work, but we need to have the commitment by the German authorities that the job will be done now. Waiting longer is not a credible option, but a slap in the face of the claimants.

Strong words indeed. Der Spiegel entitled its article "Misnomer" with respect to the report's title as a "Final Report" given its many uncertainties. This echoed comments by Ruediger Mahlo of the Jewish Claims Conference in Germany, who called it "an interim report at best" and that the overall result was "worse than disappointing." Other queries such as "Why isn't Germany returning Nazi looted art?" have followed.

Longer analysis was forthcoming in anticipation of the report from Jens Bisky, Catrin Lorch und Jörg Häntzschel at the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Julia Voss at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Both are sympathetic to the difficulty of the work faced by the Task Force.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Nicholas M. O'Donnell
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