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Nazi-Era Art Cache Brings Provenance Issues To Swiss Museum


The Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland will accept art collected by a Nazi-era dealer. The institution was named as the sole heir to the collection. The president of the board of trustees of the museum called the decision anything but easy. For more on this, we're going to turn to Jonathan Petropoulos. He's author of the book "Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration And Survival In Nazi Germany." Welcome to the program.

JONATHAN PETROPOULOS: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

CORNISH: So to begin just tell us a little more about this dealer. What's known about him or her?

PETROPOULOS: Well, the person who possessed the art most recently is the son of a famous art dealer. The son is named is Cornelius Gurlitt, and his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was one of the most important dealers during the Weimar Republic, during the Third Reich and then into the postwar period.

And he left his art collection to his widow and to his children. And in February 2012, the German customs authorities went into the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, and they were astonished at what they found - almost 1,300 pictures, the largest trove of Nazi-era art. And that started this whole saga.

CORNISH: So give us a sense of what's in this collection - any particular piece of significance?

PETROPOULOS: Well, there's a whole range of art among the 1,300 works. Some of the artists that would be recognizable are Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall. There's the German artist Max Liebermann. The valuations have been very high, in my opinion. We see some estimates that the art's worth $1.4 billion. And I think that's an exaggeration. But certainly we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of art.

CORNISH: As we mentioned, the head of the board of trustees of the museum calling the decision anything but easy to accept the art. But how is this being viewed? I mean, in this day and age, what's the view of people accepting art from this kind of collector?

PETROPOULOS: Well, it's very controversial, of course. And one of the reasons it's controversial is that the process of investigating the provenance - the history of these artworks - is not yet completed. Thus far, among the 1,300 pictures, we only know that three of them were looted. That's not many of the pictures, and we know that many more of them were looted. And so there's a sense that this bequest to the Bern museum has preempted the process of research and restitution. And we have to hope that the Bern museum officials will continue to allow research and restitution work to continue.

CORNISH: But is that being naive or at worst kind of willfully ignorant? I mean, what obligation does the museum have to find the art's original owners?

PETROPOULOS: You know, historically, when objects go to Switzerland, to Swiss institutions, to Swiss art dealers, the likelihood of restitution is not very high. The Swiss legal system really favors the person holding the artwork. And it's very very difficult for claimants to have success in Switzerland. And for generations, Switzerland has been the place to launder stolen assets, whether it's legally exported antiquities or Nazi-looted art. And so for these works - for, you know, this thousand works to be going to Switzerland is a real cause of concern.

CORNISH: That's Jonathan Petropoulos. He's professor of European history at Claremont McKenna College. He joined us from KSPC in Pomona. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PETROPOULOS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.