Where is Gurlitt?


Franz Marc painting from the cache

At this 75th anniversary of Kristalnacht, the German press has announced that a raid conducted early last year in Munich uncovered 1406 paintings, drawings, prints, watercolors, and other art objects, perhaps looted by the Nazis. The apartment that was raided belongs to Cornelius Gurlitt now 80, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt was a well-known art dealer and one of four art dealers named by Goebbels to sell off artworks, which were stolen by the Nazis, to fund the Nazi regime. Many of the pieces the Nazis looted were considered “degenerate.”

Although not much information has surfaced about all of the 1406 pieces of artwork, the press revealed that there were works by Matisse, Picasso, Otto Dix, and Chagall, some of which may be works not seen before by the public. Some of the stolen pieces were taken from museums, from the homes of German Jews, and established commercial galleries. It has been reported that all the pieces are in good condition.

Of course, there is a demand from many to publish the list of works in this cache. The Art Loss Register has a database of several hundred thousand of pieces of lost or stolen artworks. German officials have stated that though it may take ten years to sort out the provenance of these artworks, they are committed to make restitution where appropriate and return these works to their rightful heirs.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

Mr. Gurlitt, the son of a university professor, came from a prominent family active in the arts for generations. Before the rise of the Nazis, he was a museum director in the small city of Zwickau, where he built a collection of the kind of modern European works Hitler abhorred.

Because he had a Jewish grandmother, Mr. Gurlitt was forced to leave his position in Zwickau and, in 1933, his job as head of the Hamburg Art Association. In the years that followed, he built a business as an art dealer, establishing a reputation as one of the country’s leading experts on modern art. His Hamburg gallery became a salon for intellectual elite who remained in Germany in the years before the war.

By 1938, everything had changed. That May, the Nazis passed a law legalizing the confiscation of all works in German museums and private collections that Hitler considered “degenerate.” The dictator and his propaganda minister said at the time that degenerate art depicted, among other things, prostitutes, pimps, idiots and Jews, and Hitler loathed much abstract art.

The ill-defined category included many of the works on which Mr. Gurlitt had built his business. Because of his expertise in the area, he was one of four dealers commissioned by Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry to find buyers abroad for the artwork. In addition to works taken from German museums, the stock included the property of German Jews.

For every sale, Mr. Gurlitt and his colleagues would earn a commission of at least 5%, and often more, according to historians. Not all of the works were sold, however, and Mr. Gurlitt is believed to have purchased some for his own collection, according to the archival records.

In 1942, after the Nazi program to sell the “degenerate” holdings ended, Mr. Gurlitt was given a more prestigious position as a buyer for the so-called Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. Hitler, who had spent much of his childhood in the city, planned to turn it into the Reich’s cultural capital, with a museum housing centuries of European masterpieces at its center.

Mr. Gurlitt made at least 10 trips to Paris, then occupied by the Germans, where he searched for art treasures for Hitler. On those trips, historians believe Mr. Gurlitt also acquired works for his private collection. Among the art found in his son’s apartment was an oil painting of a girl by Matisse that was known to have been taken by the Nazis from prominent Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg…

Mr. Gurlitt portrayed himself to the Allies as an advocate for controversial contemporary artists who were derided by the Nazis, and claimed he was criticized himself for his avant-garde tastes, according to documents in the U.S. archives. He said he was forced to become a dealer for the Nazis between 1942 and 1944 after his business was destroyed by Hamburg bombing….

Mr. Gurlitt’s file in the U.S. archives contains bare-bones descriptions of works of his that were confiscated by the Monuments Men. At least one of those works—a self-portrait by Otto Dix—was in the cache discovered by German authorities. The postwar list and the cache in his son’s apartment include many pieces by the same artists, though it is unclear whether they are the same works.

On Nov. 6, 1950, Mr. Gurlitt wrote to a German member of the Monuments Men committee, in German, to ask what he could do to speed up the process of having his art returned. A few days later, they were given back, the U.S. archives indicate.

In 1956, Mr. Gurlitt was the main contributor to an extensive New York exhibition of German art on paper, sponsored by the West German government and organized by the American Federation of Arts. According to AFA documents, of Mr. Gurlitt’s 23 works in the exhibition, many were by wartime artists labeled by Hitler as degenerate, including two by Max Beckmann, one by Oskar Kokoschka and five by Emil Nolde.

Gurlitt died in a car crash in 1956…

Until Sunday, many art historians believed much of Mr. Gurlitt’s collection had been destroyed in the Dresden bombings. A handful of German authorities already suspected otherwise. At about 9 p.m. one evening in the fall of 2010, customs officials carried out a routine search on a high-speed train en route from Zurich to Munich. The border crossing has long been a hot spot for individuals sneaking cash to and from bank accounts in Switzerland, hidden from German tax authorities.

Near a town along the Austrian, Swiss and German borders, officials took note that the late Mr. Gurlitt’s elderly son Cornelius was traveling with €9,000 in new €500 notes. Although below the €10,000 legal limit, the large sum led them to secretly track Mr. Gurlitt, authorities said.

Cornelius Gurlitt who documents indicate was born sometime in 1932, is now about 80 years old….His family, unlike the authorities, was aware for decades of his extensive art trove and the fact that he lived off selling parts of it, his cousin says.

Mr. Gurlitt sold works using boutique auction houses—at least one in Switzerland and one in Cologne, Germany—rather than the international powerhouses. 

In 1990, using boutique auction house Galerie Kornfeld, he sold for 38,250 Swiss francs ($48,757 at the time) a work of “degenerate” art on paper that his father had bought at a bargain-basement rate after 1938. The auction house declined to say what the work was.

German authorities were tipped off to his auction-house dealings by a December 2011 sale at Cologne-based auction house Lempertz. Max Beckmann’s “Lion Tamer,” a colorful gouache-and-pastel on paper that had been in his father’s government-sponsored show in America, went for $1.2 million—one of the highest recorded prices for a work on paper by the artist.

Mr. Gurlitt split the profit with the auction house Lempertz and the family of Alfred Flechtheim, whom Lempertz’s provenance researcher uncovered as the original owner before the war.

Mr. Gurlitt, described by one Lempertz specialist as “friendly and charming,” told the auction house that his mother had given him the Beckmann…

The German government has stated that they do not know if all the 1406 works are looted and that they are prepared to make a deal with Gurlitt to take the works in exchange for the huge amount of taxes Gurlitt owes. But the investigation, which may take some time to complete, may implicate Cornelius in more than just tax evasion. In fact, it may implicate him in making profit from stolen goods: the looted artworks of German Jews, “degenerate ” artists, and museums and galleries.

That is, he might face such charges if anyone knew where he was or whether he is even still alive.


Canaletto from the cache

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