First works from Nazi-era art hoard arrive at Bern museum

Journalists film, take picture and look at the pieces of art during the press preview of the first masterpieces of the estate of German collector Cornelius Gurlitt at the Museum of Fine Arts Bern (Kunstmuseum Bern) on July 7, 2017 in Bern. When Cornelius Gurlitt died in 2014, more than 1,500 artworks, including valuable paintings and sketches by Picasso, Monet, Chagall and other masters, were discovered at two homes he owned in Germany. Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer tasked by Adolf Hitler with helping to plunder great works from museums and Jewish collectors — many of whom perished in the gas chambers — left his vast collection to the Bern museum. Valeriano DI DOMENICO / AFP

A Swiss museum on Friday showed off pieces from a spectacular Nazi-era art hoard it inherited from a German recluse, in the run-up to the first exhibit of the controversial collection.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Bern unveiled a selection of the nearly 200 pieces set to go on display on November 2 for its exhibit “Degenerate Art, Confiscated and Sold”.

Among the works showed off to the media Friday were pieces by important German painters Otto Dix, and Franz Marc and Otto Mueller.

The works are part of a vast trove of works left behind by art collector Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in 2014 at the age of 81.

When Gurlitt died, he named the Bern museum as the sole heir to hundreds of works found in his cluttered Munich apartment, including pieces by the likes of Cezanne, Beckmann, Holbein, Delacroix and Munch.

Gurlitt, described in media reports as an eccentric recluse, hid the paintings, drawings and sketches in his Munich home for decades and another 239 works at a house he owned in Salzburg, Austria.

Gurlitt’s father was one of four art dealers during the Third Reich tasked by the Nazis with selling art stolen from Jews or confiscated as “degenerate” works.

Although German authorities discovered the collection during a tax probe in 2012, they kept it under wraps for more than a year until it came to light in a magazine article.

Gurlitt struck an agreement with the German government in April 2014 stipulating that any works that were plundered by the Nazis would be returned to their rightful owners and the Bern museum said it would honour that wish.

Heirs of collectors stripped of their assets by the Nazis, many of whom would later be killed in the death camps, have, however, complained that restitution has been woefully slow in coming.

Gurlitt’s decision to leave his trove to the Bern museum sparked a lengthy legal battle, which ended last December when a Munich court rejected his cousin Ute Werner’s challenge to his will.

She had staked a claim to the collection, arguing that Gurlitt was not mentally fit to stipulate what would happen to the art.

The Bern exhibit will not include any of the plundered works, but will be mainly made up of works considered by the Nazis to be “degenerated art” and sequestered in German museums.

Most of the pieces are on paper, including important works within the symbolism, expressionism, constructivism and new objectivity movements.

But the exhibit in Switzerland will run in parallel with a second display from the collection at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany, which will focus on “Nazi Art Theft and its Consequences”.

Once those two exhibits have run their course by early March 2018, the Bonn exhibition will go on display in Bern, the museum said.

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