The Nazis had a deadly aesthetic. In the 1930s, long before they turned to the wholesale extermination of people they deemed sub-human, they burned books and paintings they considered “degenerate” in their rage to “purify” their culture as well as their race.
But the Nazis’ savagery had a cynically mercenary side as well. They would sell what Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering called “garbage” seized from Jews and stripped from the walls of museums -- paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Kandinsky and others -- to raise millions of dollars in hard currency for their favored projects.
One of the Reich’s four specially appointed art dealers, employed by the Nazi Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art, was the late Hildebrand Gurlitt. This former museum director, who’d been fired by the Nazis in 1930 for exhibiting modern masterpieces -- and because his grandmother was Jewish -- was rehired later in the decade for his expertise. And by the end of the war he had managed to hoard at least 1,400 hugely valuable works for himself.
It was the existence of his private stash in Munich, piled in the apartment of his octogenarian son, Cornelius Gurlitt, that the German weekly magazine Focus revealed over the weekend. The current value of the paintings has been estimated in the headlines – guesstimated, really – at over 1 billion euros, or $1.3 billion dollars. There are works by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Nolde, Renoir, Courbet, Matisse, and Chagall, including one of his paintings whose existence previously was unknown.
At a press conference on Tuesday morning in Augsburg, Germany, authorities confirmed the substance of the Focus report and tried to explain why they had taken almost two years to reveal the collection’s existence.
“We first wanted to verify the origin of the paintings,” said Reinhard Nemetz of the Augsburg Public Prosecutor’s office. “This was difficult.” Clearly they were worried that the existence of the trove would bring on an avalanche of claims from museums and the heirs of collectors to whom the paintings originally belonged. And even those who can prove they owned them in the past may have trouble taking possession now. The law is not always clear about who can claim ownership after so many years.
Conceivably, Cornelius Gurlitt could argue in court that at least some of the works acquired by his father belong to him. “When we come to the conclusion that with certain paintings no crime was committed, they may have to be returned to the collector in Munich,” said Nemetz. Then, he said, “the problem” of ownership will be between Gurlitt and the claimants.
“This is an amazing story,” says Scott Andrew Selby, author of several books about heists and about true crime in Nazi Germany. Gurlitt “knew that if he tried to sell many of the pieces, they would be noticed and he would be caught. So he had a treasure trove that he could only spend a bit at a time and hope not to get caught. And when the Germans did catch him, they in turn kept quiet so as to apparently prepare for the claims that would come later.”
The original German government interest in Cornelius Gurlitt came in late 2011, when he was found carrying large amounts of cash, and the first issue for the government was tax evasion. Gurlitt’s flat in Munich was searched in early 2012, where paintings were found leaning against walls and carefully propped on top of furniture: 1,285 unframed and 121 framed pictures were confiscated and shipped over the course of three days to a government-controlled warehouse.
Curiously, at the press conference an official with the German customs authority said he does not know where Gurlitt is now. Nemetz said the prosecutor’s office has not been in contact with him and is offering no further details because of privacy issues. Indeed, Nemetz would not even say whether Cornelius Gurlitt is alive or dead.
The authorities in Augsburg also said that for the last 40 years Cornelius has owned a house in Salzburg, Austria, which has not been searched, and thus far the German authorities have not asked the Austrians to look at it.
This is an interesting omission. The Nazis stored enormous quantities of treasure in Austria’s salt mines, as documented in such fascinating histories as Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (which, as it happens, is soon to be a major motion picture directed by George Clooney).
Edsel tells The Daily Beast he’s disappointed in the way the Germans are handling the Gurlitt case: “Too often in these kinds of situations, people don’t understand there are two judicial systems in the world. One is the formal one in each country, and the other is the court of public opinion. This is not being handled in a manner that is befitting the significance of the discovery.”
In much of what was Nazi-occupied Europe, says Edsel, the statute of limitations expired decades ago, making it increasingly hard for the heirs of estates that owned confiscated art to reclaim it. This is especially unfair to Jewish families, he says, since the generation that survived the Holocaust often did not have the heart to try to reclaim their possessions, if, indeed, they had managed to hold onto the documentation, which was rare. Then their heirs are told, “I’m sorry, it’s too late, you can’t have it back.”
Hildebrand Gurlitt had helped the Reich acquire Old Masters even as he unloaded the “degenerate art” of the modern ones, and some of those more ancient classics made it into his private inventory. According to Meike Hoffmann, an art historian who has examined the collection, there are works dating back to the 16th century.
But Hildebrand Gurlitt was not always a good judge of authenticity. In occupied Paris during the war – where the auction market set records selling every kind of painting – Gurlitt spent over a million French francs to acquire a Cézanne and a Daumier that later turned out to be fakes. That bit of history will no doubt add another note of caution to claims about the value of the Munich trove. The authorities in Augsburg flatly refused to speculate over what it was worth.
Indeed, many questions remain about precisely how and when, and to some extent even why, the elder Gurlitt amassed his treasure. How did one draw the line in those days between lining one’s pockets and saving the art for posterity? Perhaps Hildrebrand Gurlitt, killed in a car crash in 1956, thought he could do both. (Precisely what his son was thinking is another matter.)
Lynn Nicholas, in her classic study The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, writes about dealers who sold Kandinskys and Klees for a few hundred dollars just to save them from Nazi bonfires. In March 1939, a thousand paintings and sculptures were incinerated and almost 4,000 drawings, watercolors and graphics were burned in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Department.
“The whole process of ‘purifying’ the German art world, and its ‘final solution’ in flames,” wrote Nicholas, eerily foreshadowed “the terrible events to come.”