Reaction to Nazi cache discovered in Germany overdone

Nov 19th, 2013 | By | Category: Journal
The appartment block in Munich where Cornelius Gurlitt lives and stored the artworks

The apartment block in Munich where Cornelius Gurlitt lives and stored the artworks

The discovery of 1500 artworks in an apartment in Munich, missing since the Nazi era, has caused a furore in a an overheated art market dizzy from a series of record prices.  The artworks, breathlessly described as ‘masterpieces’ in most reports, are clearly a selection of mainly second-rate pieces that their original owner, the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, could not sell after WWII.  Although a value of a billion dollars has been widely reported the true value is probably a fraction of that.

Gurlitt was hired by the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, to sell art deemed by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’  Gurlitt implemented state policy selling ‘degenerate art’ removed from German museums and bought some pieces for himself.  After the war the Americans continued to let him work as a dealer until his death in 1956 when the collection was inherited by his wife, Helene, and later by his son and the current owner, Cornelius Gurlitt.  It appears Cornelius Gurlitt kept quiet about his inheritance either to avoid inheritance tax, or because of the paintings tainted past, and he lived quietly with his collection in Munich.  Gurlitt reputedly sold one of the stars of his collection, The Lion Tamer, by Max Beckman for around US$1,000,000 in 2011.

The story has all the elements of a stolen art thriller….the reclusive Gurlitt holed up in his flat with his stache of Nazi tainted art.  Gurlitt has lamented that he feels sad that all people can see is ‘banknotes’ in his cherished works of art.    Apparently on most evenings he liked to remove a favorite stack of drawings from an album and go through them one by one.

The existence of the cache only came to light because of a tax evasion investigation triggered by Gurlitt being caught coming across the German border with a large amount of cash.  The Bavarian government have been very slow to come forward with any information perhaps wary of the minefield of legal issues ahead.  Were these artworks part of the group removed from German museums, confiscated from jewish owners or bought legally on the open market…or perhaps a mixture of all three?  Each piece will have to be examined individually and sorted out by art restitution lawyers.  Only 200 of the 1500 artworks are believed to be on the Art Loss Register’s database of missing artworks.

Olga Yazhgunovich published an overview in the Voice of Russia on the 5th November as below:-

The 20th century wasn’t short of “notorious” artistic events, one of them is the Entartete Kunst – Degenerate Art – exhibition featuring works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Paul Klee and Max Beckmann and staged by the Nazis in Munich in 1937. The show had the only purpose – to mock the non-Aryan avant garde culture the Nazis were trying to stamp out, The Guardian wrote.

The Degenerate Art exhibition, which triggered the massive exodus of artists (many of them had Jewish blood), is back in the limelight as yesterday some 1,500 “degenerate” art works looted by the Nazis over 70 years ago were discovered in a messy Munich apartment. The place belongs to Cornelius Gurlitt, son of the prominent Munich art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt.

Gurlitt was hired by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to sell the “degenerate art.” While implementing state policy, Gurlitt bought some pieces for himself. After the war, Gurlitt – who claimed to have Jewish descent – was allowed by Americans to continue working as a dealer until his death in 1956.
“Cornelius Gurlitt inherited the works after the death of his mother Helene. Basically this is a case of undeclared inheritance,” Karl-Sax Feddersen, a lawyer with Lempertz auctioneers in Cologne told Reuters.

“Recently, we had the disclosure of 139 possibly looted works of art volunteered by the Dutch government. Now we have a major discovery in the flat of an obscure Bavarian art dealer,” Christopher Marinello, an art recovery lawyer, told the Guardian, hinting at the painful issue of returning the looted art.

While this discovery has been described as “the greatest art find of the post-war era” its full significance cannot be gauged as a list of the works has yet to be published but it includes some really great masters, like Picasso, Klee and Chagall. This treasure trove was discovered by chance as part of a tax-evasion probe as earlier Gurlitt was able to sell a major work, Max Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer, through a reputable dealer for €840,000. “From our point of view this is a totally normal case. An old gentleman contacted our Munich office and offered them a Beckmann pastel…we had a restitution problem which we actively addressed and we found a solution ahead of the auction,” Feddersen said, commenting on the case when the auction house discovered that artwork had been bought from a Jewish owner.

The art discovery came to light through an accidental leak to the German news magazine Focus. The examination of the works had been put in the hands of an organization called the Research Centre for Degenerate Art.

It is apparently likely that most of the works in the Munich hoard were not part of the Degenerate Art collection – confiscated works that were sold off to buy Aryan masterpieces (Vermeer, Rembrandt and the like) for Hitler’s Führer Museum – but are works seized from French Jews during the Occupation.

“You have to wonder what is behind the extreme reluctance to provide information,” Anne Webber, of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe told the Guardian. “We have reminded the Bavarian authorities of the need for transparency and requested a full list of the works. So far we have had no response.”

“Germany along with 44 other countries signed the Washington Principles in 1998 and 1999, making a commitment to identifying the looted works in their collections and publishing the results. Bavarian state collections contain thousands of works acquired during the Nazi period, but they have failed to publish any list. An annotated catalogue of one of the main dealers of the Nazi era was discovered, saying which families the works were taken from and their eventual owners. This would be fantastically useful to the families concerned who are hoping to create a link with their past. This also hasn’t been published,” Webbed said.

Recently, the head of the German Museums Association went on record as saying that the reluctance to publish lists of works is tied to the likelihood of large numbers of claims.

Webber has quoted culture minister Bernd Neumann, who declared that until the thousands of looted art works in German museums are returned to their owners, there can be no line drawn under this issue.

“That surely is the point,” says Webber. “You publish the lists so that the rightful owners of the works have the opportunity to come forward. These are works of art that were stolen in the most appalling circumstances and museums were often complicit in the theft.”

Only 200 of the Munich works are believed to be on the Art Loss Register’s list of missing masterpieces. That doesn’t mean that the other 1,300 works aren’t masterpieces, simply that nobody has laid claim to them, because the rightful owners don’t know they exist.

“If people see photographs of listed works, it may prompt memories of things that belonged to their relatives,” Webber says.

“The time this should have happened is yesterday,” says Marinello, who is currently acting on behalf of French broadcaster Anne Sinclair, the former wife of ex-IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in a claim for a major Matisse painting from a Norwegian museum. “People are dying, memories are fading, records are being lost, and the German authorities are holding on to this information. When people make claims for works of art, museums ask for a receipt of payment. When you’re running for your life, the last thing you’re thinking about is the receipts for paintings you’ve bought.”

Some claim that museum directors are reluctant to give art back as this ruins their collection. “They’re curators,” says Webber, “and it’s the job of a curator to keep a collection together.”

“That is irrelevant,” Marinello objects. “The original owners of these works have the right to do whatever they want with them. Their families were murdered, their culture was destroyed; the restitution of these works of art is a small recompense. And it’s not about monetary value. There’s an attitude even in certain sections of the British press that this is about rich Jews getting even more money. The German authorities are hanging on to the details of these works until they establish their financial value. But it doesn’t matter if it’s a Picasso worth £20 million or a work by an unknown artist worth £20, the principle is the same.”

Right after the discovery, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany demanded that Germany returned looted paintings to their rightful owners. “We demand the paintings be returned to their original owners. It cannot be, as in this case, that what amounts morally to the concealment of stolen goods continues,” said Ruediger Mahlo of the Claims Conference.

The German government confirmed on Monday that it is investigating the Munich discovery.
“The federal government was informed several months ago about the case,” spokesman Steffen Seibert said, adding that authorities were supplying “advice from experts in the field of so-called ‘degenerate art’ and the area of Nazi-looted art.”

Officials in Bavaria declined to comment, instead calling a press conference on Tuesday.

“We don’t know how many of the 1,500 works are ‘degenerate’ works or looted by the Nazis,” said art expert Christoph Zuschlag from the University of Koblenz. “So we need to examine each piece individually.”
He also said the authenticity of the collection needs to be checked. ”We need to see whether these were originals or prints,” as two-thirds out of 21,000 pieces of ‘degenerate art’ taken from German museums around 1937 were prints.
According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, at least 16,000 artworks were seized by the Nazis, as Jewish collectors were forced to sell artwork at extremely low prices to Nazi-linked dealers in order to purchase exit visas to flee Germany for safer countries.

Thus, according to the Art Loss Register, among the missing masterpieces are Jan Van Eyck’s The Just Judges from the Ghent Altarpiece that disappeared in 1934. It was part of the Ghent Altarpiece at the Belgian city’s Saint Bavo Cathedral and was carefully removed from its panels during the night in April 1934 and replaced with a note: “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versaille”. Another missing oeuvre is Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man at the end of World War II. Although the painting was rescued from the Czartoryski Museum,Kraków, in 1939, it was taken by the Gestapo to decorate Hitler’s Berlin residence. In 1945, senior Nazi official Hans Frank took the paintings from the Führer’s collection to the royal Wawel Castle. However, it has never been found there.
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Tags: art market, Cornelius Gurlitt, Degenerate art, Max Beckman, Munich hoard, Nazi stolen art, The Lion Tamer

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