Mr Gurlitt is traveling. So if you see a small gray-haired blue-eyed man in elegant clothes pulling a small hard protected suitcase on wheels – don’t aim a photographic apparatus at him, he may get angry.
The eighty year old is in the centre of the latest art-“scandal” that involves “Raubkunst”, “entartete Kunst” and what not. It’s incredible what some pen pushers came up with, one writerling even mentioned the “Bernsteinzimmer” – next Gurlitt will show us Atlantis. Also incredible is how the Staatsanwaltschaft, the public prosecution, handled the case.
What “case” by the way ?
From what I have read I can piece together that Mr. Gurlitt was policed some years ago when he traveled back from Switzerland into Germany. That is a routine control by customs officers and (I think) train police. The reason for this controls is the crime of tax evasion: Clever people bring money into Switzerland, grow a fortune there and pay no taxes in the country whose citizens they are. Germany for example. So German customs officers check on people and have the right to search them. Gurlitt carried some thousands € in cash, the normal enforcement was started.
There is a small disfigurement on this: Mr Gurlitt holds an Austrian passport, he is no German citizen. He has no German tax number, no security thingy – nothing; basically it’s not the (German) public persecution’s job to care about Mr Gurlitt, as long as he does not commit a crime. Travelling and carrying some cash while on travel is still no crime.
Anyway he lives in an appartement in Munich and the coppers searched it. They found some 1400 works of art. Not – as claimed in the first newspaper articles – stuffed among rusting cans and rotting food, but well stored and in good condition. They confiscated the collection – no reason given on which basis – and took care to find an art historian who should work through the whole thing.
Welll … especially a juristic pedant should know that Provenienzforschung, provenance research, is one of the most difficult things one can be involved in, especially when it’s about modern art and the 1930s and 1940s. They obviously had the idea the art historian would simply have to look into a catalogue or something, retrieve some info and that’s it. If so, it’s a bit naive.
This happened some time ago, 2011 ? The public prosecution remained very quiet about all of that. The story emerged only weeks ago because a German magazine somehow stumbled across the whole thing, I have no clue how that happened.
Now, with some ballyhoo, a “task force” is established, international authorities and all: Before it could not be quiet and silent enough – now it can’t be open and public enough. Interested parties line up and demand to know what pictures and other objects are there. And as if it would be a matter of course, most writers talk about “Raubkunst” and restitution.
As if it would be that easy.
I find only two things interesting. First, Gurlitt sold another picture after the collection was confiscated; this one was a bit damaged. So he may have some other objects in a garage somewhere. Second, some museums show up and want to know – and others do not. Museums, especially German ones, tend to forget that (at least) some of them did benefit from the art-“politics” of the 1930s and 1940s. And museums generally show absolutely no inclination to restitute something, there are some not so nice examples over the years.
Basically nothing can be taken for sure as long as no complete list or catalogue of Gurlitt’s collection is available, which not only documents and identifies the objects, but also gives the legal status of every single piece as it is known today.
I think that it all will end like the proverbial “Hornberger Schießen”: Big Blam, much smoke, no results. A part of the paintings at least was handed back to Gurlitt’s father after the war by the American authorities, he was named as the legal owner. Gurlitt senior was an experienced trader – I explicitly do not want to say something about the moral side of his actions. And it is clear that his long time assertion that his whole collection did perish in the Dresden inferno, is a plain lie.
Besides: Shortly after the first headlines about the collection an Austrian art historian was cited, saying that he can’t understand the fuzz: It was well known for years that Gurlitt would sit on a mountain of pieces, without any intention to sell.