In a major turnaround, the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland has reached a settlement with the heirs of Curt Glaser—a prominent Jewish art critic and museum director who sold the majority of his collection after he was forced to step down from his position as head of the State Art Library of Berlin and decided to leave Nazi Germany in 1933—twelve years after it rejected the claim, the New York Times reports.
The government of Canton Basel, which steers the museum, had originally defended the institution’s acquisition of two hundred works that were previously owned by Glaser. The Kunstmuseum claimed that it had purchased the prints and drawings by artists Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, and Auguste Rodin, among others, at Berlin’s Max Perl auction house in 1933 in good faith. It said that the sale catalogue did not contain provenance information linking the artworks to the collector and that Glaser had been paid market-rate for the works.
A Swiss public television broadcast, however, contradicted the museum’s version of events in 2017. The report revealed that the museum’s art commission had been aware of the provenance of the works, and described the purchases as “cheap” and made at “fire-sale prices” in documents dating to 1933. The uncovered materials led the Basel Art Commission—a committee which advises the museum—to reassess the restitution case.
The move followed similar decisions at other Swiss institutions. In 2014, the Bern Kunstmuseum returned works from the collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father had been an art dealer for Adolf Hitler. And, between 2014 and 2018, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Hamburg Kunsthalle, and Berlin’s State Museums also restituted art to Glaser’s heirs.
“The Gurlitt case opened up lots of questions and prompted us to look more closely at the legal basis for restitution decisions,” Felix Uhlmann, the president of Basel’s Art Commission, told the Times. “We also looked at how other institutions had responded to Glaser claims, and saw that some had reached different conclusions to the Basel decision in 2008.”
Valerie Sattler, Glaser’s great-niece and one of his heirs, said: “It has taken a long time, but this is good news. We were initially all very skeptical that anything would change with this review.” The Swiss museum will mount a comprehensive exhibition in 2022 honoring Glaser’s contribution to the arts, with the consultation of his heirs.