The case of Cornelius Gurlitt

By Mehar Chohan

The raid

In February 2012 Bavarian authorities raided the apartment of 75-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich’s Schwabing neighbourhood. They discovered over 1400 artworks including paintings by Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Picasso and Henri Matisse. Upon further investigation a second art trove was located at Cornelius’s other residence in Salzburg; this is believed to have been the biggest art find post- World War II.

Cornelius Gurlitt came to the attention of the Bavarian customs officials in September 2010. During a routine check on a train from Zurich to Munich he was found carrying €9,000 cash, only just within the legal limit, acquired from an art sale in Bern. The authorities remained suspicious and began investigating Gurlitt on suspicion of tax evasion and Embezzlement, which led to the aforementioned raid of his Schwabing-based apartment in 2012.

The discovery was kept quiet over a year, with the Bavarian officials having seized the collection for inspection. In 2013 the German magazine Focus published the story, creating a media storm. We can sympathise with many readers who were angered and confused as to why this information had been kept from public knowledge for so long. The scandal had opened a can of worms on the long-forgotten debate about justice for the heirs of World War II victims whose property had been looted and confiscated under the Nazi regime.

The invisible man

Prior to the raid of the apartment in Munich, the Bavarian authorities had reached a dead end with regards to any record of the existence of Cornelius Gurlitt. With no employment history, tax or employment records, no state pension or bank accounts, health insurance, or even a listing in the Munich phone book the authorities were left baffled by the otherwise “invisible” man. What they did know was that Gurlitt was born in Hamburg on the 28th of December 1932 and was the son of the infamous Hildebrand Gurlitt, which consequently made him a person of interest.

The connection with Hitler and use of kleptocracy

The art had once belonged to Cornelius’ father Hildebrand Gurlitt, and the significance of the name did not escape the German officials. Hildebrand was one of four art dealers who collaborated with the Third Reich after 1933 and during World War II (1939-1945). This connection could therefore not be overlooked.

Born one quarter Jewish in 1895 in Dresden, and belonging to a family who were very much involved within the Arts, Hildebrand grew up an avid fan of Modernism and subsequently became the director of the Konig Albert Museum in Zwickau in 1925. After being fired for his inclination towards modern art Hildebrand took up the position of curator and director of the Kunstverein in Hamburg five years later and was accordingly fired again for the same reason! In 1933 Hildebrand set up an art dealership under his wife’s Aryan name, the same year that Hitler’s minister of propaganda and close associate Joseph Goebbels had created The Reich Chamber of Culture (RKK).

The RKK highlights the strategic positioning of the Third Reich; it’s intent being to pillage art works systematically through their art policy of Aryanization. Thus the corrupt leaders instigated kleptocracy over several territories, using their positions to exploit people in order to extend their own personal wealth and political powers. The banning of art criticism followed shortly after its initiation and by 1938 Hitler’s government had issued the “decree for the reporting of Jewish-owned property”. This had grave consequences for Jewish families with a spike in forced sales resulting in around 16,000 works of art being removed from German Museums and the closing down of art schools.

As luck would have it in order to meet the growing demand for art handlers Hildebrand was sought after. In 1943 he was handpicked to build Hitler’s art collection and specifically handed the responsibility of selling degenerate art, due to his expertise in the field and his understanding of the international art market. Hildebrand was provided with special privileges to broker purchases of art works from various occupied countries of Western Europe such as France, the Netherlands and Belgium. He also attended various auctions, buying works that has been looted from museums and Jewish owners – the histories having been removed, distorted or covered up. Lynn Nicholas wrote in her 1994 book The Rape of Europa that one French auction house sold more than one million objects, where most of the works were either taken by force from collectors and galleries or bought under heavy duress, eventually finding their way into museum collections or private ownership in America and all across Europe.

What is “degenerate art”?

Hitler had a particular loathing of modern or abstract art, which he considered to be “degenerate” and symptomatic of Jewish artists. He preferred and thus championed for realistic and classical are, which he believed epitomized harmony, order and beauty. Any art that was condemned as “degenerate” was therefore forcibly snatched up. Jewish families fleeing their homes either had to abandon or sell their property for low prices in order to raise the funds for their escape. The Nazis in turn profited by selling the works to finance the war effort, or traded the works for classical equivalents.

In 1937 a degenerate art exhibition was held to ridicule modern and abstract art. The aim was to highlight the indecency and absurdity of the works on display as well as to draw comparison between the works and the Jewish-Bolshevik ideology of anti-Semitism (although it should be noted that only six of the artists represented in the exhibition were actually Jewish). The Degenerate Art Exhibition included works by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Max Beckmann to name a few. The irony was that the exhibition turned out to be very popular, with about 2 million people coming from far and wide to view the works. In contrast the Great German Art Exhibition, where Hitler’s approved classical style of nudes and landscapes were on display, did not fare so well in terms of popularity.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of four art dealers Hitler had permitted to sell degenerate art abroad. As it turns out he took great advantage of this freedom, amassing a huge collection that he bought for next to nothing. He led two lives in this complicated game of survival and self-enrichment in which he played everybody: the Nazis, the Allies, the Jewish artists, dealers, and owners of the paintings, all in the name of allegedly assisting victims with their escape and saving their most precious possessions.

After the war in 1946 Hildebrand Gurlitt was put under house arrest and his artworks were seized for evidence. The Allied forces brusquely questioned him and he had to provide a number of reference letters that attested to his character…how he’d survived as a Jew during the occupation and not as a collaborator. He also successfully managed to convince the authorities that his property and business dealings were destroyed during the war. After some investigation the seized works were found to be legitimately acquired and thus released, as was he. Hildebrand continued dealing in art after the war ended, right up until his fatal car crash in 1956. Everything was then handed down to his son, Cornelius Gurlitt.

Returning to April 2014, Cornelius Gurlitt and the Bavarian government agreed that the works that were still under legal dispute would be returned to their rightful owners. This agreement was shaped upon the understanding that Cornelius would co-operate with the provenance researchers, and if any works were found looted in accordance with the 1998 Washington Principles they would be restituted. But, as fate would have it, Cornelius died before the agreement was finalised and bequeathed the entire collection to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland. The bewildered museum, after deliberation, agreed with Germany to only accept artworks that were not looted.

The German government and the Free State of Bavaria jointly funded and established a task force, aptly titled the Gurlitt Dossier, to examine the provenance of Gurlitt’s treasure trove of art. Under mounting pressure from the media, Jewish families and the World Jewish Congress a list of the works was published online. The woman selected to head the task force was Meike Hoffman, an art historian from the Degenerate Art Research Centre at the Freie University of Berlin. But in 2015, after 2 years of tireless work, the team had only identified the provenance of 11 works – 5 of which have since been returned to their rightful owners. These included Henri Matisse’s ‘Seated Woman’, Max Liebermann’s ‘Riders on the Beach’, ‘Interior of a Gothic Church’ by Adolf Von Menzel and Camille Pissarro’s ‘The Seine and the Louvre’.

With rejuvenated effort the Gurlitt Provenance Research Project was established in 2015, headed by Professor Monika Grutters (Germany’s commissioner for culture). In order to speed up the process they expanded the team, inserted a panel of experts, and increased the funding. To date 9 pieces have since been declared “Nazi-looted”, and six have been restituted to their owners. The case in general, however, is riddled with complexities.

Most museums are committed to the 1998 Washington Principles Conference (11 non-binding principles on dealing with Nazi looted art and restitution) but private owners are not bound by this agreement. The principles have more of a moral obligation than a legal one. Secondly, the Statute of Limitations of Ownership (which maxes 30 years) for this crime has run out under German Law. Thirdly, there is the complex and arduous activity of conducting thorough provenance research. Even with the Herculaneum effort and resources fuelling the unveiling of the Gurlitt hoard, provenance research and restitution is generally becoming ever-harder to execute. This is due in part to the expenses (there is much cost-relative criticism) but also because the people who are entitled to the works aren’t speaking out, are not aware of the work being done, or are no longer around.

In 2017-2018 two concurrent exhibitions titled Gurlitt Status Report took place. The first, at Bern Fine Art Museum in Switzerland, showcased the works that have a clean provenance, emphasising the Nazi campaign against degenerate art. The second was in Bonn, Germany, and showcased the works whose provenance status is unknown or unclear. A combination of the two exhibitions were shown in Berlin last year. The staging of the exhibitions plus legal work, provenance research and restoration work have proven to be very costly. Consequently Bern Museum director Nina Zimmer has made the decision to sell the Edouard Manet painting ‘Ships at Sea in Stormy Weather’ (1893) to help reinstall some of the costs. The painting was cleared of being looted and will be sold to Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art – reportedly for $4, 0000.

The discovery of the art trove in the Munich apartment is an inconvenient reminder of the unresolved crimes of Nazi art plunder and raises some problematic questions for the art world and the German government, primarily why was the discovery withheld for so long? Why was Hildebrand not punished? And how had Cornelius been able to sell the paintings throughout his lifetime, to enable his living costs? This case puts a spotlight on the lack of transparency in the art world and the need for museums and galleries to question where their collections come from. But more importantly it gives us the push for more awareness around the issues raised in the 1998 Washington Conference. Dealing with Nazi-looted art and the claims for the return of property are especially important now, since so much time has passed the number of survivors are getting fewer and far between.

About the author: Mehar Chohan is a freelance provenance researcher currently living and working in Pakistan. She earned her BA in the history of art and architecture from Kingston University (Surrey, England, U.K), her diploma in design from KLC (London, U.K) and her postgraduate certificate in art crime research from ARCA (Amelia, Italy). Mehar has worked at Christie’s Auction House U.K. and has been a freelance lecturer of art and society. As well as running her own design studio Mehar’s interests lie in the provenance research of artefacts and the repatriation of these objects, and has been doing freelance research and writing on the topic.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.