Looted art bequeathed to museum investigation into ownership continues

Cornelius Gurlitt, the German art collector whose uncovered trove of some 1,400 early 20th-century works shocked the world last fall, made the Bern Art Museum in Switzerland his sole heir.

The museum made the announcement on May 7, saying it was surprised to be chosen since it did not have a relationship with Gurlitt, 81, who died May 6.

“The Board of Trustees and directors of Kunstmuseum Bern are surprised and delighted, but at the same time do not wish to conceal the fact that this magnificent bequest brings with it a considerable burden of responsibility and a wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind, and questions in particular of a legal and ethical nature,” the museum said in a statement in which it identified itself as Gurlitt’s “unrestricted and unfettered sole heir.”

Gurlitt wrote the will within the last few weeks of his life, shortly before undergoing heart surgery, his spokesman Stephan Holzinger told the BBC.

The works were confiscated from his home in 2012 in the course of an investigation for tax evasion. Other works were subsequently found in Gurlitt’s second home in Salzburg, Austria.

Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, was an art dealer on assignment to the Nazis. When he died in 1956, his son inherited the collection, which includes works by such greats as Picasso, Renoir and Matisse.

In April, Gurlitt signed an agreement with the state of Bavaria and the German government that the provenance of all works would be researched, paving the way for the return of the paintings to heirs of the rightful owners.

In an email to JTA, a spokesman for the task force set up to research the provenance of works confirmed that it would continue searching for possible rightful owners despite Gurlitt’s death. — jta