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November 5, 2013

Tuesday, November 05, 2013 - No comments

Gurlitt Art Collection: German magazines Focus and Der Spiegel Online report on the 'Nazi treasure' of 'masterpiece paintings' found two years ago

Cover of Focus
By Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

On Sunday, November 3, Museum Security Network, under the leadership of the new moderator Alice Farren-Bradley, sent out a Dutch article about a story from the German Focus reporting the discovering of a Nazi treasure of masterpiece paintings worth billions.

The Munich magazine, Focus -- founded in 1993, edited by Helmut Markwort, and a competitor of Der Spiegel -- published this article in its November issue (in German) alleging that two years ago Bavarian customs (Bayerische Zollfahnder) discovered 1,500 works by artists such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse confiscated during the Third Reich were amongst the trash in the apartment of 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of art historian and dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. According to Focus, Cornelius Gurlitt raised suspicion carrying a large amount of cash on him on a train between Switzerland and Munich in September 2010. The following spring, Focus writes, investigators searched Gurlitt's apartment in Munich and discovered prints, etchings, engravings and paintings between mountains of rotten food and decades old tin cans. Focus reported that Bavarian customs now have the paintings and that Berlin art historian Dr. Meike Hoffmann is trying to determine the origin and value of the paintings. According to Focus, after the raid in the Spring of 2011, Cornelius Gurlitt sold a painting by Max Beckmann for 864,000 Euros through the Lempertz auction house in Cologne. According to Focus, one of the paintings found was Henri Matisse's Portrait of a Woman from the collection of Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg, the grandfather of French journalist Anne Sinclair and American lawyer Marianne Rosenberg.

In The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1994), Lynn H. Nicholas recounts that Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt, the director of the Zwichau Museum, 'was fired in 1930 for "pursuing an artistic policy affronting the healthy folk feeling of Germany" when he exhibited modern artists. In 1938, Nicholas reports, Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of four 'well-known dealers' appointed to sell art designated as 'garbage' as declared by Nazi Joseph Goebbels and targeted by the Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art. Nicholas identifies Gurlitt as a major buyer at 'the phenomenal sale of the late dentist Georges Viau's Impressionist collection on December 11-14' [1942]. Gurlitt is now 'one of the buyers for Linz' (Hitler's proposed Third Reich museum):
who in addition to the Cézanne [Vallée de l'Arc et Mont Ste.-Victoire] bought three other million-plus pictures: a Corot Paysage composé, Effet gris; a proscribed Pissarro; and for FFr 1.32 million a small Daumier Portrait of a Friend. The truth of the matter was that in France these "degenerate" works were among the hottest items in an overheated market and were being traded and bought to a large degree by those who had condemned them. 
Alas for Gurlitt, both the Cézanne and the Daumier were fakes. The good dentist, it seems, loved to "finish" oil sketches by well-known artists, and copy other works outright. The little Daumier was a copy of the real picture, which had also belonged to Viau, but been sold elsewhere; the Cézanne pure invention. It is now in the study collection of the Musée d'Orsay.
Hildebrand Gurlitt, according to Nicholas, was a trusted agent for Hermann Voss, appointed in March 1943 to purchase art from French Jewish collections.

In a follow up article, Focus asks if there are any other treasures hidden in Munich and notes that empty picture frames in the apartment suggested that Gurlitt had sold paintings from the collection he had hidden in his apartment. And in another article today, Focus readers question the secrecy of the investigation into the found art.

In today's Der Spiegel International online, under the headline "Nazi Plunder: 1,500 Modern Artworks Found in Munich Flat", the Focus investigation is translated into English, adding that Hildebrand Gurlitt was 'hounded' after the Nazis seized power 'because he had Jewish roots':
But thanks to his excellent contacts in the art scene, he was tasked with selling art works to overseas buyers that had featured in the landmark "Entartete Kunst" exhibition of 1937. Organized by the Nazis, it presented 650 works of art deemed "degenerate" that had been confiscated from German museums and effectively stolen from Jewish families. 
After the war, he maintained that the work had all gone up in flames when his home was destroyed in the Dresden firebombing of February 13, 1945. He died in a traffic accident in 1956.
It has now become clear that his extraordinary collection was probably bequeathed to his son, who over the last few decades has allegedly sold an unspecified number of artworks in Germany and Switzerland.
Focus reports that after the raid on the Munich apartment, the collection has been stored under lock and key at the customs office in Garching. An art historian told SPIEGEL ONLINE that she was hired 18 months ago to provide an expert assessment. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Markel's spokesman Steffen Seibert confirmed that the German government had been informed of the matter several months ago, adding that public prosecutors in Augsburg had taken on the investigation. 
If the provenance of the art works cannot be established, Focus writes that they might still be returned to the suspect, because even the legal ownership of work known to have featured in the "Entartete Kunst" exhibition is unclear. For the time being, the man is only being investigated for tax evasion. 
But a statement once given by the art dealer's widow could prove crucial to the case. In the 1960s, she informed the authorities that all of her husband's treasures had been destroyed in the Allied firebombing of Dresden. She was specifically asked about the whereabouts of several paintings formerly owned by the Jewish collector Henri Henrichsen, including one work by Carl Spitzweg. Precisely this painting, and other documents related to it, popped up in the trash-filled Munich apartment. Given proof of a false statement, a legal case could now be used to forfeit the 80-year-old's ownership rights over the works. If the authorities succeed in doing that, the treasures would then be handed over to the state, or more specifically, to the Federal Minister of Finance.