23 April 2015

Kafka meets Gurlitt

by Marc Masurovsky

It’s fair to say that, ever since the revelation of the existence of the Cornelius Gurlitt collection in November 2013, the German federal authorities, the Bavarian authorities, the police, local prosecutors, cultural institutions in Munich and Berlin, and eventually, members of the “concerned” international community on matters of restitution of art objects looted between 1933 and 1945---let's not forget the role of the press, both German and “foreign” and the newest kid on the block, the Kunstmuseum in Bern—all of these elements thrown into a gigantic bucket have produced nothing short of a Kafkaesque exercise which has not exactly yielded as much as one would have hoped for, namely "transparency" or less opacity, honesty, justice, and, more importantly, tangible research findings.

What was supposed to have been a straightforward process involving research into the histories of the Gurlitt objects, has turned into a severe entanglement of conflicting interests, inept handling of the public and the research process itself, bureaucratic indifference and—some have said—hostility toward those the families seeking restitution of their property currently in the Gurlitt collection.

As of today, there are at least three active claims that are awaiting the inevitable outcome—the physical return of the paintings: the “Seated Woman” by Henri Matisse, “Two Riders on a Beach” by Max Liebermann, and the 'View of the Pont-Neuf," by Camille Pissarro.

Although all parties involved in these delicate negotiations have apparently sensed that the end of the process is near, a new layer of incomprehensible procedural complication has delayed the return of these paintings to their rightful owners.

Indeed, in a pattern that closely resembles past tactics used by the French government to hamper the claims process and make it horribly difficult for claimants to gain access to their own documents sitting in government archives, it appears that every living Gurlitt relative must sign off on the release of the three paintings to their rightful owners.

If you didn’t tear your hair out by now, please feel free to do so.

It would be wise and humane on the part of the German government to intercede, fast-track this already laborious process and return the paintings without further ado. Otherwise more scorn and contempt will be heaped onto their heads.

Unfortunately, the world is a complex place in which to live and co-exist. We do have long memories, which continue to be stirred up in great part by the shadow of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, the Second World War and their legacies on the postwar world. Even though Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars to individuals and nations for the calamities that the Reich wrought on the people of Europe, nothing justifies the present state of circumstances.

We have to ask:

What does it take to return three paintings to their rightful owners for which the historical evidence is overwhelming in favor of the claimants?