Do you remember hearing about the 2012 raid on the small Munich apartment that uncovered over 1,200 works of Nazi-era looted art? In this book, Hitler’s Art Thief, Susan Ronald tells the whole unbelievable story of the men behind the stash: Cornelius Gurlitt, the 80-something owner of the apartment, and his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi-era German dealer of modern art.
This book is perfect for fans of the Monuments Men who wish for a deeper understanding of exactly how Nazi looting took place and why restitution remains so difficult. In particular, this book tries to explain what happened to the “Degenerate Art” which Hitler didn’t want, but was happy to profit from. It is a disturbing story with Hildebrand Gurlitt in the deep dark center, playing off both sides at once.
But let’s fast forward to the present for an update to the latest news about the Gurlitt stash. You might have heard that when Cornelius Gurlitt passed away in May, 2014, his will donated the entire “Gurlitt Collection” to the Kunst Museum of Bern, Switzerland. Interesting that Gurlitt did not choose a German museum, isn’t it? Before his death, Gurlitt had lawyered up and was fighting the German government, objecting to their warrantless search and seizure and demands for restitution. The Kunst Museum of Bern played hot potato, denying any prior relation with Gurlitt and hiring lawyers of its own. It took several months before the museum finally agreed to accept only those paintings that had not been looted. The looted art would remain in Germany pending a lost art claims procedure.
Since then, a further wrinkle has developed. Although Cornelius Gurlitt never married and had no children, there are two surviving cousins – Uta Werner and her brother Dietrich Gurlitt – who have filed a legal challenge to the will. The Kunst Museum has said the donation is on hold pending the outcome of the matter in German probate court. As of October, 2015, the appellate court is considering a report by an independent psychologist regarding Gurlitt’s mental capacity to execute the will.
Either way the court decides, it appears that looted art in the Gurlitt collection will be available for restitution. Both the heirs and the museum have agreed to cooperate with efforts to locate the proper owners of the looted art.
The problem is, how do you know what’s looted if there aren’t good records? If the records are themselves fraudulent, missing or destroyed? And most tragically, when the original owners were murdered and the heirs don’t know or can’t prove what paintings are rightfully theirs?
In many cases, Hildebrant Gurlitt bartered and traded “degenerate art” for traditional art designated for Hitler’s Fühermuseum in Linz, Austria, but sometimes he just sold it on his own account for his own personal profit, making it all more difficult to track. Sometimes Gurlitt just held onto it and hung it on his own walls.
After the war, Gurlitt tried to sell some of the art for personal profit, but found it more and more difficult to explain their provenance or to find a way to launder them. So when Hildebrandt died in 1958, his son inherited the stash. Apparently, Cornelius couldn’t figure out how to sell it off either. And so it sat until 2012.
Out of the 1,407 pieces of artwork discovered in the Munich apartment, and another 60-plus in two different homes that Cornelius Gurlitt owned in Salzburg, Austria, there are about 970 artworks under provenance investigation. According to the Lost Art Internet Database, the Task Force has categorized about 380 of them as “degenerate art,” which were for the most part confiscated from public collections and museums. The Task Force is investigating another 590 works for evidence of Nazi-era looting.
Although this Task Force was formed in 2013, only four pieces of art in the Gurlitt Collection have been identified as looted and only two have been returned to their lawful owners. One of these is Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach (1901).
When the news broke about the Gurlitt treasure trove, a 90 year-old New York attorney named David Toren recognized Two Riders on a Beach from his childhood. He could recall seeing it at his uncle’s estate in Germany just before the war. Although most of Toren’s relatives died in the holocaust, Toren survived because he had been sent on a Kindetransport to Sweden in 1939. Torn submitted a claim the Gurlitt Task Force but encountered so many delays that he filed suit in 2014.
In May, 2015, the Task Force finally agreed to grant Toren’s demand for restitution. They confirmed that the Nazis had forced the sale of Toren’s uncle’s German estate (along with Two Riders on a Beach which hung inside) to a Nazi General who planned to use the lodge as his retreat during the upcoming invasion of Poland. The painting would have been considered “degenerate art” and thus ended up in the hands of the modern art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. Gurlitt was supposed to find a buyer and to sell it on behalf of the Third Reich, but ended up keeping it for the rest of his life.
To learn even more behind the true story of this and the hundreds of Gurlitt’s other stolen works of art, you’ll have to read the book in its entirety. It’s a fascinating book, but sadly, the story is not nearly over. It is likely there is even more of Gurlitt’s looted art collection stashed away in secret places.
For further reading on the subject of Nazi looted art: