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Germany returns final Nazi-looted artwork from pensioner’s trove

Germany said on Wednesday it had returned to its rightful owners the last artwork confirmed as looted by the Nazis uncovered in the collection of a reclusive Munich pensioner.

Germany returns final Nazi-looted artwork from pensioner's trove
One of the works found in Gurlitt's apartment, Waterloo Bridge by Monet, being displayed in Berlin in 2018. Photo: DPA

Culture Minister Monika Grütters said a total of 14 pieces had been handed back since a giant trove held by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer, came to light eight years ago.

The final work to be restituted was “Klavierspiel” (Playing the Piano), a drawing by German artist Carl Spitzweg. It was given on Tuesday to Christie's auction house according to the wishes of the heirs of music publisher Henri Hinrichsen, who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1942.

The transfer was arranged with the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, which inherited Gurlitt's collection when he died in 2014.

READ ALSO: Germany returns famous artwork looted by Nazis

Grütters said it sent “an important message” that with the Spitzweg drawing “all art identified as looted from the Gurlitt art trove has been returned to the heirs of the victims”.

“Behind every one of these pictures is a tragic human fate,” Grütters said.

“We cannot make up for that great suffering. But by reckoning with the art looted by the Nazis, we are trying to contribute to historical justice and face up to our moral responsibility.”

'Enduring duty'

Grütters pledged to “decisively” continue provenance research on work in German collections, saying it was an “enduring duty”.

Adolf Hitler's regime stole the drawing from Hinrichsen in 1939 and the following year Hildebrand Gurlitt bought it.

The Nazis had engaged Hildebrand — who was part-Jewish — from 1938 to deal in items taken from Jewish owners or confiscated as “degenerate”.

A German government task force identified the drawing as looted in 2015 but legal complications meant its restitution could not be settled until now, Grütters said.

More than 1,500 works including pieces by Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt were seized in 2012 during a tax probe.

The discovery of the stash, kept secret until the following year, made headlines around the world and revived an emotional debate about how thoroughly post-war Germany had reckoned with art plundered by the Nazi regime.

When Gurlitt died, the Bern museum accepted the collection, though it left about 500 works in Germany for a government task force to research their often murky origins.

Their work, and restitution, have been criticised by many heirs and activists as too slow. They say the Gurlitt case underlines the ongoing need for thorough provenance research in museum holdings and private collections.

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ART

Paul Gauguin’s ‘Mata Mua’ returns to Spain

One of French painter Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings, "Mata Mua", will return to a Madrid museum on Monday following an agreement between the Spanish government and its owner, who took it out of the country.

mata mua madrid
Toward the end of his life, Gauguin spent ten years in French Polynesia, where he completed some of his most famous artwork Painting: Paul Gaugin

The artwork had been on display for two decades at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum but in 2020 when the institution closed because of the pandemic, the painting’s owner Carmen Thyssen moved it to Andorra where she currently lives.

Her decision to take “Mata Mua” to the microstate sandwiched between Spain and France raised fears she would remove other works from her collection which are on display at the museum.

“It is expected that the painting will arrive today,” a spokeswoman for the museum told AFP.

mata-mua_gauguin-madrid

In 1989, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza bought Mata Mua at the Sotheby’s auction in New York. Painting: Paul Gauguin

The artwork will go back on display to the public “a few days after” Thyssen signs a new agreement with the Spanish state for the lease of her collection, she added. The deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday.

Painted in 1892 in vivid, flat colours, “Mata Mua” depicts two women, one playing the flute and the other listening, set against a lush Tahitian landscape.

It is one of the stars of Thyssen’s collection of several hundred paintings which are on show at the museum, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Her collection had initially been displayed at the Madrid museum as part of a free loan agreement signed in February 2002 that was subsequently extended.

But in August 2021 Spain’s culture ministry announced it had reached an agreement with Thyssen to rent the collection from her for 15 years for €97.5 million ($111.5 million), with “preferential acquisition rights on all or part” of the works. The collection includes a Degas, a Hopper and a Monet.

Aside from housing her collection of works, the museum displays the collection of her late husband, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss heir to a powerful industrial lineage who died in Spain in 2002.

The Spanish state bought his collection in 1993 from $350 million, according to the museum.

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