The year 1937 can be described as the beginning of a cultural doomsday when the most devastating art event happened in Munich. It was the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition organized by the ruling Nazi party to showcase what was considered, as the title suggests, degenerate and unfitting for their purist Arian ideology. It was confiscated art depicting other bodies (nonwhite, queer, physically impaired), emotional states and stories by an array of exceptional artists affiliated with the most prominent avant-garde movements at the time.
Just one year after the horrific Kristallnacht or The Night of Broken Glass, the first systemic pogrom against Jews performed by SA paramilitary forces and civilians, a series of thefts of the Jewish properties occurred and an enormous number of valuable artifacts, among them sculptures and paintings were taken by the state.
Throughout World War II, the Nazis established special departments to secure looted art that was constantly acquired from different territories. After the war ended, the Allies organized units that were in charge of gathering, sorting, and returning looted objects to their owners; however, numerous artworks were demolished, lost or remained hidden.
Such was the case with the Gurlitt collection, veiled with mystery for a long time until very recently. It was revealed in 2010 after seventy-eight-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt was stopped by customs officers for a routine check on a train traveling from Zurich to Munich. The Gurlitt collection quickly became one of the most publicized cases of potentially Nazi-looted art.
Although Cornelius Gurlitt died in 2014, the collection was under inspection for a couple of years until the most recent findings. But before we come to that it is mandatory to revisit the whole story and the circumstances that enabled the formation of this collection.
The Gurlitt Collection consists of around one thousand and five hundred paintings by Old Masters, Impressionists, Cubists, and Expressionists (spanning from Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Franz Marc, Otto Dix, and Edvard Munch, to Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, among many others), It was formed by the German an art historian, museum director and art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895–1956) who had a specific interest in Modern art. Well connected with numerous artists, he used to purchase their works for the the König Albert museum in Zwickau led by him, which gradually turned him into a dealer active from the mid-1930s onwards.
Along with the mentioned Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937, the German Government decided to set up a system to sell as many confiscated items as possible abroad, and for that purpose four art dealers were engaged, including Hildebrand Gurlitt. They were able to trade such pieces for an agent's commission, and the ones that were not sold, the art dealers were able, legitimately or illicitly, to purchase them for low value or just keep them in their personal collections.
As the documentation compiled by the former Nazi Ministry of Propaganda shows, Gurlitt's name frequently appears next to many entries on a listing. Moreover, he was hired by the Nazis to collect French art assets (most of them looted from museums and wealthy collectors) for Hitler's Führermuseum which he planned to open in Linz. For instance, between 1943 and 1944 Gurlitt purchased around two hundred works in Paris and the Netherlands.
Shortly after the Allies sieged the country, Cornelius’s father and mother were caught by United States Army authorities with twenty boxes of art in the town of Aschbach. Gurlitt the elder claimed that after 1945 firebombing of Dresden much of his collection and his documentation of art transactions was destroyed; the carried artworks were taken from him by American and German authorities, but were returned after he convinced them that the artworks were acquired lawfully, underlining he was a victim of Nazi persecution due to his Jewish heritage.
Perhaps the substantial part of the collection was indeed destroyed as Hildebrand Gurlitt claimed, but additional portions were successfully hidden in France, and retrieved after the war. By 1947, this art dealer continued dealing and was assigned the position of Director of the Art Association for the Rhineland and Westphalia in Düsseldorf.
Hildebrand Gurlitt claimed that he was helping the owners in difficult times since he was among the only few to conduct those transactions. However, it seems that he was only interested in profit as he refused to cooperate with those seeking to reclaim looted artworks or asking for compensation during the postwar period.
After Hildebrand’s death in 1956, the collection passed on to his wife Helene who died in 1964, and then to their son, Cornelius, with some artifacts passing to his sister. The young Gurlitt led a modest, quiet life as a single man between one of the two fifth floor Munich apartments and his Salzburg house. After exhausting the inheritance left by his mother, he lived by occasionally selling the paintings from his collection that was practically secret, unknown to his friends and the public at large.
Cornelius Gurlitt usually maintained the proceeds of the sale in a Zurich bank, so he used to travel every four to six weeks to withdraw nine thousand euros to pay his living costs. While conducting one of these actions, he was caught, as mentioned, on a train while returning from Zurich to Munich. What triggered the authorities was the suspicion that he might be part of an art fraud, selling stolen artworks on the black market.
Under the warrant, the German customs entered his sister's apartment in Munich where he was living and discovered one thousand four hundred artworks including works by Renoir, Matisse, Otto Dix, and many other famous artists. These were all confiscated by the officials, although the legality of this action was later questioned in court. Although without a lawyer at the time, Gurlitt demanded the collection be returned to him since he hadn’t committed a crime. The investigation was developing slowly under the radar until it was revealed to the press and reported sensationally by the German magazine Focus in 2013.
Later that year, Cornelius Gurlitt was given a lawyer by a local court in Munich, and he eventually filed lawsuits against unidentified officials who had leaked information on the discovery to the press, as well as against the Prosecutor's office for the return of the collection. To his lawyer, Gurlitt reported the existence of a second portion of the collection consisting of two hundred and fifty pieces and held at his Salzburg house, which he then moved to a new location on Gurlitt's behalf to avoid interference of the German authorities.
The successor claimed that all of the works in this collection were acquired legally by his father and that the presumptions it includes looted artworks are simply incorrect. This was enforced by the fact the legal claims on potential looted works expire after 30 years. However, since 2012 Gurlitt had to return any works that were deemed looted to the heirs.
Cornelius Gurlitt died in 2014, and after his will, the collection was given to a small Swiss museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Bern. According to his friends, Gurlitt decided to give the collection to an institution abroad since Germany treated him and his father badly. Both artifacts from his Munich and Salzburg residency were part of the bequest, but the museum decided to accept those works that were not marked as the proceeds of Nazi looting, while the others under suspect provenance remained in Germany under further investigation.
Some of the looted artworks were returned to the heirs of the legitimate owners such as a portrait by Matisse (restored to the heirs of French art dealer Paul Rosenberg), and Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on a Beach from 1901 (that was returned to the heirs of the German-Jewish industrialist and art collector David Friedmann).
The results of the research regarding the mystery surrounding the trove were recently published in a form of an anthology called Gurlitt Art Find: Paths of Research, prepared in joint efforts by a consortium of experts and the German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg. Interestingly so, the insights do not offer much about the true provenance of the artworks since only fourteen works from the collection were formally identified as having been looted and restituted to the rightful owners. This research concluded that more than four hundred works were not looted, which still leaves around one thousand works to be firmly identified.
Featured image: Paul Signac - Quai de Clichy, Temps gris. Image via creative commons.