The unfinished business of World War II

I went to see the exhibition “Gurlitt: Status Report” which opened a few days ago at the Gropius Bau. The 200 works shown, from a wide range of eras and styles, are spectacular and beautiful. However, the story behind this exhibition is what intrigues me the most as it involves two of my big passions – art and law, or shall we call it simply justice?

In order to understand the background of this extensive exhibition we should go back eight years ago to 2010, when an anonymous 77 year old pensioner by the name of Cornelius Gurlitt was caught during a routine customs check on a train coming back to Germany from Switzerland, with an unexplained amount of 9.000 Euros in cash in his pocket. 9.000 Euros, which were below the legal limit but enough to raise the suspicion of the German prosecution authorities and eventually lead to a treasure worth so much more.

As part of the investigation, the authorities arrived two years later to search Gurlitt’s three room apartment in Munich. They didn’t expect to find the following – an apartment packed with more than 1200 paintings, drawings and prints – some by renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Mark Chagall and many more. Some of the works were stored between food cans and juice boxes, full of dust…  Another 238 works were found later on hidden in Gurlitt’s small house in Salzburg.

When realizing that Cornelius Gurlitt inherited all those artworks from his father Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was Hitler’s art dealer, the works were immediately suspected as being confiscated or looted by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. For some reason, the discovery was kept in secret for more than one and a half years. it was only November 2013 when the public learned about the “Munich Art Hoard”, a discovery that stunned the art world.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was approved by the Nazis to be their art dealer despite his Jewish background (his grandmother was Jewish). He was dealing in works that were either looted from Jewish families or sold at lower-than-market prices under extreme duress by desperate people preparing to flee for their lives. After 1938 it became illegal for Jews to buy and sell art. Some private collections were confiscated.

Hildebrand also dealt with another type of artworks,  which were determined as “Degenerate Art”, and therefore were forbidden to be exhibited and supposed to be destroyed (in short: “Degenerate Art” is the term the Nazis used to describe modern art, that was considered as not matching their aesthetic Aryan norms and insulting German feelings. Works by Jewish or communist artists were included under this term as well. It is also the title of an exhibition held by the Nazis in Munich 1937, consisting 650 modernist artworks which were shown as insane and viewed as an evil plot against the German people, who were encouraged to mock them). From 1943 Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of the privileged few given a commission to purchase works for the “Führer museum”. It is clear that he also took the opportunity to expand his own collection…

After the war ended, Gurlitt managed to convince his American captors that most of his collection was destroyed during the firebombing in Dresden. Instead he clearly managed to hide it and later on pass it on to his son after his death. Recently, it has become apparent that he gave some to his daughter Renate as well.

To investigate the suspicions that the art works found at Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich were looted by Nazis, the German government provided funding to establish an international team of experts  in order to investigate their provenance. Cornelius has accepted an agreement under which any work identified as looted or confiscated will be restituted to its owners. After his death on May 2014 kunstmuseum Bern, which was his sole heir, ensured its commitment to fulfill the agreement as well.

unfortunately, the provenance of a great number of works is likely to remain unclear. It is very difficult,  almost impossible, to trace the owners of the majority of these pieces. Some of them did not survive the holocaust or had died already. Others were children at the time. How can they remember precisely what a painting looked like? Where will they find the documents to prove ownership? How can they prove after 70 years that the works were sold under pressure? And as expected, to this day only four works of the Gurlitt Trove have been returned to the descendants of their rightful owners.

Another example of how complicated it is to claim ownership in such cases can be found in the recent decision of a federal appeals court in New York that has rejected a claim of a Matisse painting owned by the National Gallery in London – read here.

I find it sad and astonishing that after more than 70 years this “unfinished business” is still alive and kicking. I hope that the descendants of those people who lost everything – their families, their identity, their property – will still receive some late justice.

  • Gurlitt: Status Report, An Art Dealer in Nazi Germany“, until the 7th of January 2019 at the Gropius Bau.
  • For those of you who want to delve more into this fascinating story, I highly recommend the book “The Munich art hoard – Hitlers dealer and his secret legacy” (Thames & Hudson) by Catherine Hickley, which I was so lucky to be recommended by my friend Sandy.

2 thoughts on “The unfinished business of World War II”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Dorit! I find the story interesting and intriguing…
    Love your writing style! So clean and easy to read! Keep up the good work!xo

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