By Stephanie Nebehay
BERN (Reuters) – Some 150 art works from a massive trove amassed by a German collector during the Nazi era went on public display for the first time on Wednesday in the Swiss capital, amid lingering questions about the origins of the collection.
German art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt built up the collection after being enlisted by the Nazis to sell so-called “degenerate” modern art they had seized from German museums.
His son Cornelius Gurlitt inherited the art and then kept it stored in his Munich apartment for decades. The Kunst Museum Bern was stunned to learn in May 2014, the day after Gurlitt’s death, that it had been named as the sole heir to 1,500 works, including paintings by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
Its exhibition “Degenerate Art – Confiscated and Sold” is composed mainly of drawings, lithographs and paintings confiscated by the Nazis from museums and acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt.
“For the most part we know exactly when the works were confiscated, from which German museum,” Nina Zimmer, director of the Bern Art Museum, told Reuters Television.
“We only have taken works where we are 100 percent sure they were not looted (from private owners),” she said, adding that a further 300 “degenerate” works were awaiting clarification of their ownership as intensive research continued.
“Art, after 70 years, needs to see the light of day and the public needs to reconnect with the art works,” Zimmer said.
A separate exhibition of works from the Gurlitt collection will open in the German city of Bonn on Friday with the title “Nazi Art Theft and Its Consequences”.
At a news conference to mark the opening of the Bern exhibition on Wednesday, Zimmer said the gouaches and works on paper – by leading avant garde German artists of the 1920s and 30s banned by Adolf Hitler – represented “exemplary works of symbolism, constructivism and objectivism”.
They include 20 works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, such as “Liebesszene” (Love Scene), a 1908 colour lithograph depicting two nude women embracing. Woodcut prints by Emil Nolde, horses painted by Franz Marc and colourful female portraits by Otto Dix are other stand-outs.
German tax inspectors discovered Cornelius Gurlitt’s art collection during a raid on his Munich home in 2012, after a customs inspection on a train from Zurich triggered a tax evasion probe.
A task force set up by the German government to determine the ownership history of the works said in Jan. 2016 that only five had been wrongfully taken from Jews, drawing criticism from Jewish groups. Paintings by Matisse, Max Liebermann and Camille Pissarro have been restored to the rightful heirs.
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, told the German daily Die Zeit on Wednesday: “There are still museums and collections that do not do provenance research. And unfortunately the archives are still not as accessible as they should be. Some institutions prefer to hide behind data protection regulations.”
A Paul Cezanne painting, whose exact provenance is being determined amid discussions with the French artist’s descendants, is expected to go on display in Bern before the current exhibition ends in March, Zimmer said.
“We do hope for feedback, perhaps a person will remember seeing a painting, or someone remembers a letter about a work. So it is highly justified to show these works of art,” she said.
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Marina Depetris; Editing by Gareth Jones)