November 18, 2013

Gurlitt Art Collection: Hildebrand's essay in 1955 on his art and legal complications

Hans Christoph's 'Couple' 1924 TELEGRAPH
From the staff at De Spiegel: Hildebrand Gurlitt's 1950s essay about his history with art in the article 'A Kind of Fief': Munich art hoarder's father in His Own Words, begins with this introduction:
Almost a year before his death, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956) wrote a six-page essay on the history of his collection that was originally intended to serve as a foreword for an exhibition catalogue. But it was never printed "for all kinds of reasons," as Gurlitt wrote in a letter in November 1955. This forgotten manuscript, which was kept for decades in the Düsseldorf city archives, is one of the few texts written by Gurlitt that provides an insight into the life and intellectual world of this passionate collector. One page -- in which Gurlitt apparently describes his career as an art dealer during the Nazi era -- is missing from the archives. Nevertheless, the surviving pages are an important source of information on the life of this man. The following is a compilation of the key passages:
Hildebrand Gurlitt's text describes his father as a collector and friend to "modern" artists in Germany; his military service in World War I; his studies in art history in Frankfurt; his jobs as a journalist and as a museum curator; 'that German Expressionism conveys its key message in prints and drawings'; 'fierce battles' over modern art with the Nazi Party; teaching in Dresden; sacked again in Hamburg; his struggles to support 'new art'; establishing an art gallery in his apartment in Hamburg; 
A great many works of modern art passed through my hands. They came from painters, from emigrated clients and friends, from people who preferred to sell the paintings as a precaution, from the depot of confiscated art in Niederschönhausen where, if you had enough pluck, you could buy very beautiful paintings with the same foreign currencies that were otherwise illegal to possess and could land you in jail. What wasn't sold for cash -- some 80,000 works of art, I believe -- was burned by the SS. I was able to save many of these paintings from destruction and pass them on to great collectors, like Josef Haubrich in Cologne and Bernhard Sprengel in Hanover, who purchased the entire collection of prints and drawings by Emil Nolde. There were always men whose profound love of the new art made them courageous, but everything was done half in secret.

(A page is missing here.)
 Hildebrand Gurlitt recovered art works in addition to what had been confiscated by the Americans:
(After the bombing raids on Dresden on the night of Feb. 14, 1945 -editor's note) we swore to regret no material losses, to recognize the logical consequences that had led to the destruction and, although we were filled with sorrow, to resume life, no matter how simple.

I found the safeguarded remains of the collection and still own them. But their adventures had actually only just begun. Torn from their passepartouts, dispersed at various locations, part of the collection was in Saxony, and it was only later, after a communist village mayor had confiscated them, that I was able to secure their release with a bit of cunning and, thanks to a good Russian who was delighted with two bottles of schnapps on a rainy night, slip them through the Iron Curtain. Another part of the collection was confiscated by the Americans and returned to me -- safe and sound -- by an outstanding specialist five years later. A third part of the collection was hidden in the thick walls of an old windmill in the Franconia region and later recovered.
Hildebrand Gurlitt indicates he was not acting as an art dealer after the war:
I have not been an art dealer for many years now; the "thousand years" of the Third Reich were enough for me. But I won't sell any of these works of art, just as I can acquire very few new ones. I see this collection, which has -- quite unexpectedly, I must say -- fallen back into my hands after so many perils, not as my property, but rather as a kind of fief that I have been assigned to steward.
Another article today by the De Spiegel staff, "Legal Issues Complicate Munich Art Treasure Trove Find", predicts years will be required to resolve complex provenance issues.
According to the Bavarian justice ministry, some 1,280 paintings and drawings were found in the apartment, although a figure of more than 1,400 works had been mentioned previously. The collection can be roughly divided into three groups:
  • First, there were the pictures that Hildebrand Gurlitt sold on behalf of the Nazi dictatorship, which it classified as "degenerate" and which he was expected to turn in hard currency abroad. The Bavarian investigators estimate that this category includes 380 works of art.
  • The second group consists of those works that were "seized in connection with acts of persecution," or the so-called looted art. These are works that were stolen from their Jewish owners. The Nazis confiscated entire collections, forcing Jewish collectors into selling them their artworks. Top Nazi officials obtained some of the works, while others ended up with art dealers. Cornelius Gurlitt's collection apparently contained some 590 works that officials suspect may have been looted art.
  • The third group, which includes 310 artworks, appears to be more innocuous. Hildebrand Gurlitt's acquisition of some of the pieces may be above suspicion, perhaps because he purchased them before the Nazi era or because they were part of the family estate.

 Here's information on 25 artworks released Nov. 11 (here in De Spiegel, an analysis on, and images in the Telegraph).