Who would have thought that the darned Gurlitt legacy would become a model for how to deal responsibly with Nazi-looted art?

The decision of the Kunstmuseum Bern, announced on Friday and detailed justified, to return two watercolors by Otto Dix to the heirs of the Jewish lawyer and collector Ismar Littmann actually represents such a model. It is not the first time that works of art that the National Socialist regime extorted or stolen directly and which then ended up in all kinds of state museums and private collections are restituted.

Mark Siemons

Feuilleton correspondent in Berlin.

  • Follow I follow

And it is not the first time that principles have been developed for all those cases in which the provenance of the works cannot be proven as completely as the restitution laws in most countries require - the “Washington Principles are particularly important here ”From 1998, which urged a“ just and fair ”settlement with the claimants. But what is new and setting the standard is the offensive, prudent and systematic way with which an institution in the art world not only accepts restitution, but declares it to be its own cause.

A ruse in history may be that this example is not first set on treasured own holdings, but on a private collection that the Kunstmuseum Bern acquired completely unexpectedly. In 2014, Cornelius Gurlitt's will determined the art collection of around 1,600 works for Bern, which he inherited from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who was temporarily in the service of the “Führermuseum” in Linz. In Germany, the collection tracked down by tax investigators in Gurlitt's apartment had become a political issue two years earlier. The initially created impression that it was exclusively or predominantly looted art had to be corrected soon. But the investigation of suspicious property relationships gave the spectacular case a boost;a “Schwabing Art Fund Taskforce” and a “Gurlitt Provenance Research Project” began their work.

The report now published by the Foundation of the Kunstmuseum Bern under the leadership of Marcel Brülhart no longer deals with the nine works that were clearly identified as looted art at the time. Rather, the focus is on the question of how to deal with ambiguity, with "incomplete knowledge". In times of war and crimes against humanity, the fact that the burden of proof, as is customary in court, rests with the applicant for return claims cannot be the decisive criterion because evidence and evidence are often deliberately destroyed there. That is why the museum has decided to make a further differentiation in cases in which a provenance is not complete - by far most of them are - are there any conspicuous accompanying circumstances or indications thatthat it could be looted art - or are there no such indications? In the second case, the museum keeps the corresponding works as long as no new findings emerge (that is 1091 from the Gurlitt collection). In the first case (29 works) the museum restitutes the works to the heirs of the owners (like the two Dix watercolors now), hands them over to the Federal Republic as trustee (5) or keeps them temporarily for further research (22).hands it over to the Federal Republic as trustee (5) or keeps it temporarily for further research (22).hands it over to the Federal Republic as trustee (5) or keeps it temporarily for further research (22).

What is special about the Bern approach is that the fundamental nature of the analysis there goes hand in hand with transparent documentation (from now on also accessible via an online database, there will be an exhibition in autumn) and the determination of the institution to actually hand in the suspicious works. Even before the publication, the foundation voted for the restitution, so that, unlike in the case of the return of the Kirchner painting in Berlin, no subsequent dispute is to be feared. Even the emphasis that each case should be decided for itself seems to belong to the Bern model - no institution should fear for its sovereignty. The new self-image should also extend to its own holdings: the museum is looking for authorized persons for three works from the fund. German museums,where looted art slumbers will have to react to the new standard.