An unusual and possibly contentious exhibition has just opened jointly at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, and Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany. Titled “Gurlitt: Status Report”, it presents works from the collection discovered in the Salzburg and Munich homes of Cornelius Gurlitt by tax inspectors during a search in 2012 for possible tax evasion. Approximately 1400 artworks were found, including Old Masters, Cubist, Expressionist and Impressionist paintings by such famous artists as Chagall, Cézanne, Dix, Matisse, Marc, Monet and Courbet. The majority of the paintings were unframed and many were on paper. Gurlitt died the following year aged 81, leaving the works exclusively to the museum in Bern in his will. Despite contestation from a member of Gurlitt’s family that he was not of sound mind when he made the bequest, the exhibition has been given permission to go ahead by a court in Munich.

When news of the find reached the press, it made headlines around the world. Cornelius Gurlitt had inherited the collection from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art expert and young museum director when the Nazis came to power in Germany. Fond of contemporary art – the kind considered “degenerate” by the Nazis – and of Jewish descent, he was unable to make progress in his career in Germany. Until, that is, he changed his policy and began to cooperate with the Nazis. Accountable to Hermann Göring, a commission was appointed to seize degenerate art from collectors, galleries and museums, which it then sold abroad to raise funds for the Nazi party. Gurlitt was one of the people who bought entire lots of works from the Nazis for small sums, which he then sold on or kept for himself. Hildebrand Gurlitt built up a private collection and continued to trade in artworks until his death in 1956, when his collection passed to his son Cornelius, born in 1926.

Cornelius Gurlitt’s will bequeathed the works to the Kunstmuseum in Bern, an unusual choice seeing that he was German and had a second residence in Austria. A condition of the will was that the museum should search for the rightful owners of the works and return them as appropriate, and it was on this basis, and the fact that it would only accept those that had not been the property of Nazi-era owners, that the museum accepted the bequest. Criticism has been made that few rightful owners have been discovered, either by the museum or a task force set up by the German government for the same purpose.

Now the works are being shown to the public. Given the size and scope of the collection, the exhibition should attract visitors from around the world. It is open until 4 March 2018. The Bonn half of the exhibition will then pass to the Kunstmuseum Bern, where it will be shown from 13 April to 1 July 2018.

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