The Bern Museum assumes “its great responsibility” for the Gurlitt legacy

The Museum of Fine Arts in the Swiss capital has decided to face the gaze of history by presenting until January 15 the exhibition "Gurlitt. A review".

The Museum of Fine Arts Bern will have needed seven months of reflection in 2014 to decide to accept the estate of Cornelius Gurlitta hoard of some 1,600 works including property stolen from Jews.

What does provenance research actually mean and where are the limits? What is the museum's responsibility in the face of this heritage with a tumultuous history and how has it assumed it? The questions that accompany such a succession are explored in the large-scale exhibition "Gurlitt. A reviewwhich is held from September 16 to January 15 at the museum.

After seven years of research and evaluation of this heavy legacy, the museum decided last year how to deal with works whose provenance has not been clarified, renouncing 38 works stolen by the Nazis or suspected but accepting to I keep 1,091 whose provenance was incomplete but without proof or indication of spoliation.

An immoral choice according to some, but the museum rejects the criticism while emphasizing its "great responsibilityin the face of this legacy. "We have developed categories to be able to reasonably decide"according to the origin and any signs of spoliation, and"I believe we have come to a fair solution.“, explained Marcel Brülhart, Vice-president and legal expert of the museum, during the presentation of the exhibition.

A desire for transparency

Living in a Munich apartment surrounded by paintings by Chagall or Matisse among other masters, the German octogenarian Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer with a troubled past under the Third Reich, had been propelled despite himself under the spotlight after the discovery of his treasure - some 1,400 works - by the German authorities in 2012. Another part of this collection was later discovered in a house belonging to him in Salzburg, Austria.

Some of the works, part of the Gurlitt legacy, had either been confiscated by the Nazis from Jews and then resold, or sold cheaply by fleeing Jews. Or else confiscated by agents of the IIIe Reich because considered as "degenerate art".

The affair had revived the debate on the restitution of works stolen from Jews under the IIIe Reich. "It is an illusion to think that we will achieve complete knowledgeon the provenance of the works,the story progresses and many documents have been destroyed“, indicated Marcel Brülhart.

He also pointed out that Hildebrand Gurlitt only worked with the Third Reich "for a very limited period of his lifeand had collected works all his life. In his eyes, the Gurlitt affair marks a real "turningbecause the museum has shown that decisions can be made to find a fair solution even when the provenance of a work is incomplete. The museum, according to its director Nina Zimmer, took it to heart to adopt in its research a "full transparency», to reassess the expertise in the event of new information and to find fair and equitable solutions with the potential rights holders, even in the event of incomplete knowledge.

Eleven works returned

To date, eleven works have been returned, including the painting "Woman with a fanby Henri Matisse returned to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg in 2015. According to Marcel Brülhart, nearly thirty works are still the subject of litigation.

This is the third exhibition organized by the museum on this legacy. But "the 2017 and 2018 exhibitions featured the bequest works as an example of the art market during the Nazi period in Germany and as an example of looted artexplained Nikola Doll, curator of the exhibition.

The new exhibition aims to showcase the work of provenance research that the museum launched in 2017 and presents around 350 pieces, both works of art from the bequest and reproductions of historical documents from the written collection of Cornelius. Gurlitt preserved in the German Federal Archives and other archives in Germany, France and Switzerland. There are some paintings by Cézanne, Kandinsky, Munch or even Monet and Rodin.

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