November 15, 2013

Gurlitt Art Collection: Highlights on De Spiegel's "Phantom Collector"

De Spiegel: Max Liebermann, "Two Riders on the Beach"
As pointed out in a long article, "Phantom Collector: The Mystery of the Munich Nazi Art Trove", De Spiegel Online, English, November 11, 2013, by Spiegel Staff, in 1901 Max Liebermann, an Impressionist painter, created "Two Riders on the Beach" and exhibited it in Berlin and in the Hermes art salon in Frankfurt. Four years later, in 1905, Berlin gallerist Paul Cassirer sold the painting to a sugar refiner from Breslau, David Friedmann.
On Dec. 5, 1939, three months after the war broke out, Dr. Westram, a senior government official in Breslau, wrote a letter to the Reich minister of economics, under the heading: "Seizure of Jewish Art Collections." 
One passage relates to the "estimated value of artworks owned by Friedmann, a Jew." According to Westram, Friedmann's collection included French Impressionists "like Courbet, Pissarro, Raffaelli, Rousseau," along with "good German" landscapes. "The painting by Liebermann (Riders on the Beach) would likely fetch at least 10 to 15,000 Reichsmarks abroad," he wrote. He also noted that he had forbidden Friedmann from selling his artworks without permission. It is unlikely that he later sold the works despite Westram's instructions. 
De Spiegel: Sample of Gurlitt collection
'Forfeited to the Reich' 
When Friedmann died in 1942, his villa was sold at auction and the proceeds were "forfeited to the Reich." His daughter Charlotte was deported to an SS death camp in 1943 and murdered there.
De Spiegel's article recounts the family history of Hildebrand Gurlitt (part Jewish from an 'educated middle-class-family'); Hldebrand Gurlitt's dismissal twice from two positions by the Nazis; his success at dealing in art (1935); and the Nazi's characterization and assemblage of "Degenerate art".
On Oct. 25, 1938, Gurlitt gained access to the storage facility containing the "degenerate" art, which included works he had once acquired for the museum in Zwickau. They were kept at Schloss Schönhausen in Berlin. Gurlitt had customers in Basel and New York. He, like other dealers, also secretly sold graphic works in Germany. Hamburg art historian Maike Bruhns learned that Gurlitt showed drawings by Paul Klee and Emil Nolde to customers he trusted in the basement of his Kunstkabinett gallery. 
Art to the Highest Bidder
Gurlitt took on more than 3,700 works on paper from Schloss Schönhausen. In May 1939, he sold the Franz Marc painting "Animal Destinies" to the Kunstmuseum Basel for 6,000 Swiss francs, for which he received a commission of 1,000 francs. For the same amount of money, he bought 1,723 works on paper from Schloss Schönhausen in mid-December 1940. They included watercolors, prints and drawings by Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and other Expressionists. Gurlitt signed his letters to the officials in Joseph Goebbels' propaganda ministry with the words "Heil Hitler!" or "With German greetings."
A companion later recalled that Gurlitt drove a small car in those days, and that he would see "paintings by Munch, Corinth and Franz Marc emerging from the car like some colorful ball of yarn, and it was never quite clear how all of it could have fit into that tiny car."
Then came a defining moment in Gurlitt's career. His friend Hermann Voss, director of the Dresden State Art Collections and special commissioner for the planned "Führer Museum" in Linz, Austria, hired him in 1943 to build Hitler's art collection. Gurlitt brokered the purchase of paintings from various countries, including the occupied countries of Western Europe -- France, the Netherlands and Belgium -- for several million Reichsmarks. He was provided with privileges and given the necessary documents. A letter from the "Special Commissioner for Linz" certified that Gurlitt was buying works of art "for the purposes of the Führer," and that it was "of great interest in terms of cultural policy" that the art dealer be allowed to "complete his mission expeditiously." 
Hitler's Art Commissioner
Hitler's special commissioner for Linz had his office at the Dresden State Art Collections, where records were kept on the looted art. The purchases made for Linz between December 1942 and April 1945 are documented in the so-called "Wiedemann list." It includes the transactions conducted by Gurlitt's gallery.
Under the first entry, dated Sept. 6, 1943, Gurlitt delivered four paintings, including a work by Claude Joseph Vernet called "Seaport by Moonlight," for 40,000 Reichsmarks. One hundred thousand Reichsmarks were paid for the first delivery.
Gurlitt kept himself busy after that. Within a year, he delivered well over 100 paintings, rugs, drawings, miniatures, portraits, sculptures, tapestries and pastels to the special office. According to the list, the value of the artworks, which was already at rock bottom because of the pressure the Nazis were exerting on private collectors, was more than 9.2 million Reichsmarks, of which Gurlitt received a 5 percent commission.
The last Gurlitt painting arrived at the special office on Sept. 6, 1944. The work, "Madonna and Child Between Angels," by a member of the early Italian school, was priced at 200,000 Reichsmarks.

In an interview with Allied Forces in 1945, Gurlitt denied purchasing art stolen from Jewish families which De Spiegel questions:
Gurlitt toured the territories occupied by Nazi Germany like a kind of traveling salesman. In France he acquired 19th-century paintings for German cigarette manufacturer Philipp F. Reemtsma. He attended auctions that sold off looted art from museums and stolen art that authorities had seized from Jewish owners. Is it possible that he knew nothing of the origins of this artwork?
In regards to the bombing of Hildrebrand Gurlitt's home in Dresden in 1945:
In the spring of 1945, part of Gurlitt's collection was in Dresden; the family was living at Kaitzerstrasse 26 at the time. During the Allied air raids on the night of Feb. 13-14, the building was nearly completely destroyed, but Gurlitt was apparently able to save most of his art trove. In mid-March 1945, as he later wrote in a sworn statement, he was able to salvage the remainder of his "safeguarded paintings" and pack them in "roughly 25 crates," along with numerous boxes with hundreds of drawings and prints. 
He then transported the collection in a "truck with a trailer" to Aschbach in the southern German state of Bavaria, where he said he stored it in a castle that was soon captured by advancing US troops. "All crates and boxes," said Gurlitt, "were carefully checked by American commissions on a number of occasions." Many of the works were confiscated and brought to the central collecting point in Wiesbaden, he noted.
Gurlitt insisted to the Allies that he was not a Nazi, De Spiegel:
American officials were skeptical, and described Gurlitt as withdrawn and nervous. They thought his behavior was suspicious, and asked him why he had brought crates with the stamp of the Dresden state art collections to western Germany, along with alleged gold bars. He remained evasive.
At the same time, he agreed to give back a number of works in his possession that he had acquired in France. He also compiled a comprehensive list of the paintings that he had purchased in France during the war, which included Rodins, Chardins and Rembrandts.
Yet, De Spiegel writes:
The fact of the matter is that Hildebrand Gurlitt led two lives, as shown by many file documents. The Hamburg Police Department wrote in 1947 that Gurlitt allegedly "profited enormously" from the period of the Third Reich. "Aside from an exaggerated sense of business acumen, he reportedly took advantage of the predicament of the Jews and associated with men from the counterintelligence service." 
This was based on testimony by Gurlitt's former secretary Ingeborg Hertmann. She noticed that Gurlitt "maintained regular business and personal contacts with the Propaganda Ministry, Dr. (Rolf) Hetsch (the Propaganda Ministry's consultant for the visual arts), ... (Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert) Speer and (Propaganda Minister Joseph) Goebbels." 
In the years 1942 and 1943, she said that he "only worked for the Führer." She went on to say that at the Hamburg Kunsthalle -- an art museum in the city -- he purchased paintings by Liebermann "at cheap prices that were incomprehensible to me and sold them for astronomical amounts of money." The secretary added: "When the Jews were deported to the Lodz ghetto, they entrusted Gurlitt with all of their paintings to be sold. After a while, these people wrote letters, asking him to send money because they were starving. Gurlitt then told me in a calm and indifferent manner to send 10 Reichsmarks to the Jew."
Nevertheless, the Americans were generous. Gurlitt was allowed to keep the works of art that he had declared his private property at the collecting point of the US administration in Wiesbaden. In December 1950, the US high commissioner approved the return of 134 paintings and drawings from the "Gurlitt collection." In addition to the artwork, there were Nepalese antiquities and Meissen porcelain. For two additional works of art, the art dealer produced a certificate from a Swiss friend who attested that he gave Gurlitt a Picasso and a Chagall in Switzerland "around 1943." He subsequently received these works as well. A photo of the Chagall, an "allegory with three moons," was shown last week at a press conference. 
In Gurlitt's later years, before he died in a car crash in 1956, he served as the director of the Düsseldorf Kunstverein from 1948. He still had an enormous amount of energy, and he transformed this small art association into a captivating institution, which of course showed modern art. He also continued to deal in artwork. Indeed, it's likely that after 1945 Gurlitt added a number of works to the collection that was found at the home of his son Cornelius in Munich. 
The paintings returned by the Americans also included Max Lieberman's "Two Riders on the Beach," which had somehow made its way from David Friedmann's conservatory in Breslau to Gurlitt's crates of artwork in Dresden.


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