25 January 2016

The Gurlitt Task Force "fact sheet"

by Marc Masurovsky

The Gurlitt Task Force made a three-page fact sheet available to the general public dated 12 January 2016.

Since the discovery of Cornelius Gurlitt’s private collection in November 2012, too much ink has been spilled over the origins, content and disposition of this collection, which, due to its association with Hildebrand Gurlitt, father of Cornelius Gurlitt, has borne the mark of Cain for his association with the Nazi regime and for having profited therefrom. Hildebrand Gurlitt died in an auto accident in 1956. What he left to his heirs, one of whom was Cornelius Gurlitt, we do not know. We are unaware, at least we in the general public, of the total number of art objects that were in Hildebrand Gurlitt’s possession at time of death. We do not know how many objects his son, Cornelius Gurlitt, sold on the international art market, how many he loaned for exhibitions, how many he donated, how many he gave away, how many he swapped for other objects.

All we know is what we have been told by the German authorities: that there were 1256 works of art which comprised the Cornelius Gurlitt collection. 

The Task Force set about to ascertain how many of these objects had an explicit provenance which could connect it to an act of spoliation, to a theft or misappropriation directed or inspired by the Nazi regime against its owner.

After two years of work and the employment of over 20 contractual researchers on renewable short-term contracts, the Task Force has identified only 11 works as being explicitly the product of Nazi confiscations and thefts, some of which have been returned to their rightful owners, after laborious and unnecessarily complicated negotiations.


499 Gurlitt-owned works are listed on the lostart.de database, proof apparently that there is still a question about their ownership histories.

Let’s look at the other figures:

507 works were not considered to be tainted as Nazi loot, of which 231 works were de-accessioned from German public museums in the 1930s. Did the Task Force even bother to research their provenances once their link to German public institutions was clearly established? What if they were on loan to those institutions prior to being purged for being “degenerate”? Will we ever know?

Isn’t it a fact that the American government upheld during its occupation of a defeated Germany the Nazi de-accessioning law as a legitimate act by the Nazi Government to protect the “values” of German society? Sounds like the forerunner of our modern-day “family values” movement. The questions surrounding that politically motivated act by the American government in the immediate postwar years should be discussed in the open. One wonders if the decision to uphold this Nazi attack against culture was not motivated more by a fear of provoking a wholesale purge of American collections which had been stocked in part by donations from private collectors and dealers who had bought large quantities of “degenerate” works on the international market at fire sale prices and justified their purchases as “rescues”. One should not be shy to express these thoughts because one’s “rescue” is another’s act of complicity with acts of plunder associated with genocidal undertakings. Indeed, had the American government declared the de-acccesion law illegal, the question of repatriating to the reborn Germany all works sold to non-German collectors--private and institutional-would have had to be dealt with in one fashion or another. It never was.

We need to return to Square One here. 

We don’t really know how the Gurlitt Task Force has defined “Nazi loot.” Does it include works that were subject to “internal plunder” during the 1930s which were acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt at auctions at which objects were sold as a direct result of racial and political persecutions against the owners of those works, forced to sell in order to garner some income to be used to flee Germany? Did the Gurlitt Task Force consider as plundered objects confiscated by Nazi collaborators operating in German-occupied territories?

We don’t know.

We don’t even know how many of the works in Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection were acquired by him on the international art market without due regard for provenance.

We don’t know anything about the methodology used by the Task Force, the archives that were consulted, how far and deep the research was conducted.  Were private archives consulted? How many art historians were consulted as experts on specific artists? How did one determine that an object was subject to Nazi theft besides the obvious description of a Gurlitt object on inventories drawn up by agents of the Nazi government as confiscated?

We might hope that some or all of these questions have been answered in the full report of the Task Force, which was released in German, several hours before the German government made a public announcement of its release, thus giving no time even for Task Force members to review the report.

None of this sounds good. If this is the best that the German government can do under the klieg lights of international opinion, its every moves analyzed and scrutinized for the past two years, we should not hope for German authorities and their agents in museums and cultural circles to practice what we consider to be “transparency”, an absence of “opacity.”

Murkiness has characterized the Gurlitt process since the investigation into Cornelius Gurlitt was initially announced in late 2012. It appears to be as thick as odorous sludge.

Enclosed is the first page of the Gurlitt Task Force “fact sheet.”

Fact sheet
Results on Munich Stock of Artworks
1258 artworks: Total number of works Composed of:
          1224 artworks: Number of seized artworks
          34 artworks: Finds from Cornelius Gurlitt’s estate which were entrusted to the Taskforce for provenance research after Cornelius Gurlitt’s passing in August/September 2013
507 artworks: Number of works that were found not to be Nazi-looted

o 231: Works which were dislocated from German museums by the “Degenerate Art” operation, but which had been acquired by each respective museum already before the Nazi regime came into power in 1933 and which were not on loan from private individuals
o 276: Works which could be attributed to the Gurlitt family stock because they either were created after 1945, or were made by members of the Gurlitt family, or could be attributed on the basis of personal dedications
499 artworks: Posted on the Lost Art online database since suspicions had not yet been ruled out that they may be Nazi-looted art

o 11 artworks: work identity assured; provenance established (4 works: Nazi-looting confirmed; 2 works: strong suspicion of Nazi-looting after establishing their provenance; 5 works: initial suspicion of Nazi-looting ruled out)

o 117 artworks: work identity assured; provenance indications on possible Nazi-looting; very specific indications in case of 25 artworks

o 27 artworks: work identity assured; due to provenance indications Nazi-looting seems unlikely

o 152 artworks: work identity assured; low provenance indications
o 143 artworks: work identity assured; no provenance indications

o 49 artworks:work identity not assured; noprovenance indications
252 artworks: Artworks (mainly from the “Degenerate Art” operation) for which further research is necessary before they can be categorized