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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Gurlitt Collection: Last of 14 Nazi-looted artworks auctioned

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Among the some 1,500 artworks found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s hoard, 14 were proven to have been looted under the Nazis. The last of these has now been sold at auction.

A pencil drawing by Carl Spitzweg auctioned at Christie’s on Wednesday would not normally have garnered much attention. After all, the small-format portrait didn’t break any auction records — even though it reached a far higher price than the auction house’s initial estimate of €1,000-1,500 ($1,300-1,700), ultimately fetching €18,750.

It’s the drawing’s provenance that makes it so provocative: The work was originally owned by Dr. Henri Hinrichsen, a Jewish music publisher and art collector who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942.

The picture is one of more than 1,500 works from an art trove known as the Cornelius Gurlitt Collection, named after the son of Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt.

According to Monika Grütters, Germany’s culture commissioner, the Spitzweg drawing is the last of 14 works from the Gurlitt collection that have been identified as Nazi-looted art.

It depicts a couple playing musical instruments, with an elderly lady listening on a sofa.

The artwork by the German painter and poet was restituted earlier this year and given to Christie’s by the former owner’s heir. The drawing served as a model for an oil painting on cardboard that was executed around 1840 and is now privately owned.

  • Drawing by Carl Spitzweg, Playing the Piano, ca. 1840

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Carl Spitzweg, ‘Playing the Piano,’ ca. 1840

    This drawing by Carl Spitzweg was seized in 1939 from Jewish music publisher Heinri Hinrichsen, who was killed at the Auschwitz death camp in 1942. It was acquired by Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt — and later found among the spectacular collection of works hoarded by his son, Cornelius Gurlitt. The work was auctioned by Christie’s at the request of Hinrichsen’s heirs.

  • Max Beckmann, Zandvoort Beach Cafe.

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Max Beckmann, ‘Zandvoort Beach Cafe,’ 1934

    The watercolor by the Jewish painter Max Beckmann entered Gurlitt’s collection only in 1945. Held by the allied occupation forces at the Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden from 1945-1950, it was returned to Hildebrand Gurlitt in 1950. Before working for the Nazi regime, Gurlitt had collected and exhibited modern art, curating Beckmann’s last exhibition in 1936 before the artist fled Germany.

  • Otto Griebel, Veiled Woman, 1926 (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH / Foto: David Ertl)

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Otto Griebel, ‘Veiled Woman,’ 1926

    This work was owned by lawyer and art collector Fritz Salo Glaser. Artists of Dresden’s avant-garde scene were his guests in the 1920s — as was the young Hildebrand Gurlitt. It is not known how Gurlitt came to possess the painting. It was confiscated in 1945 and later returned. Of Jewish heritage, Glaser only narrowly avoided deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1945.

  • Claude Monet - Waterloo Bridge.

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Claude Monet, ‘Waterloo Bridge,’ 1903

    This painting by the famous impressionist is not suspected to have been looted. The artist sold it to the Durand Ruel Gallery in 1907. The Jewish art merchant and publisher Paul Cassirer is said to have given it to Marie Gurlitt as a present, and she left it to her son Hildebrand Gurlitt in 1923.

  • Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters, right, hands over the painting 'Portrait of a Seated Young Woman' by Thomas Couture to Mandel's heirs

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Thomas Couture, ‘Portrait of a Seated Young Woman,’ 1850

    A short handwritten note allowed provenance researchers to identify this work by the French painter as a looted work of art. The picture was seized from the collection of Jewish politician and resistance leader Georges Mandel, who was executed by French fascists near Paris in 1944. German Culture Minister Monika Grütters (right) handed over the work to Mandel’s heirs in January 2019.

  • A person looks at the painting Quai de Clichy, 1887 by French painter Paul Signac

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Paul Signac, ‘Quai de Clichy,’ 1887

    The activist group Provenance Research Gurlitt identified this painting by French neo-impressionist Paul Signac as stolen Jewish property in October 2018. Gaston Prosper Levy fled Nazi-occupied France in 1940. Occupying soldiers are believed to have looted his art collection shortly before his escape. The painting was returned to Levy’s family in 2019.

  • Auguste Rodin, Crouching Woman (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH / Foto: David Ertl)

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Auguste Rodin, ‘Crouching Woman,’ approx. 1882

    Hildebrand Gurlitt must have acquired this work by the French sculptor between 1940 and 1945. Previously belonging to the Frenchman Eugene Rudier, it entered circulation in 1919 at an auction by Octave Henri Marie Mirbeau, who is said to have received it as a present from the artist.

  • Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and Devil (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH / Foto: David Ertl)

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and Devil, 1513

    This copper engraving by Albrecht Dürer once belonged to the Falkeisen-Huber Gallery in Basel. It is not known how it got there or how long it was there however. In 2012 the engraving turned up in Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection. “Old masters” like Dürer were very important to the National Socialists’ view of art and were often exploited for propaganda.

  • Edvard Munch, Ashes II, 1899 (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH/Foto: Mick Vincenz)

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Edvard Munch, ‘Ashes II,’ 1899

    The provenance of this drawing is completely unknown. It is certain, however, that Hitler considered Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s work “degenerate art.” Some 82 pieces by Munch were confiscated in German museums in 1937.

  • François Boucher, Male Nude (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH / Foto: David Ertl)

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    Francois Boucher, ‘Male Nude,’ undated

    Hitler venerated 18th-century French painting. He secured exceptional paintings for his own collection by targeting the collection of the Rothschild Family after the annexation of Austria. Hildebrand Gurlitt supplemented them with drawings by renowned French painters. He acquired this work by Boucher from a Parisian art merchant in 1942.

  • Historic photo of Gurlitt's apartment (privat/Nachlass Cornelius Gurlitt)

    Gurlitt Collection: Germany’s most infamous Nazi-looted art trove

    In Gurlitt’s apartment

    Cornelius Gurlitt hoarded the sculpture along with many other artworks for decades in his Munich apartment. Before his death in 2014, he consented to have his stocks researched and — should they include articles of stolen art — have them returned to their rightful owners in accordance with the Washington Principles on Nazi-looted art.


An international scandal

When the existence of the Gurlitt art collection was discovered in 2012 it captured worldwide attention. The revelation came after customs agents became suspicious of the elderly Gurlitt who was found crossing the Swiss border by train with €9,000 ($10,200) in cash. The find prompted an investigation that ended with Gurlitt’s apartment being searched.

What followed was presumably the most spectacular art find of the postwar period. At Gurlitt’s apartment — and later also in a house in Salzburg — investigators discovered more than 1,500 works, including paintings, prints, etchings and engravings, by renowned artists including Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Max Liebermann, Max Beckmann and Henri Matisse. The works were subsequently confiscated under suspicion of being Nazi-looted art.

The task of proving provenance

The son of well-known Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, art lover Cornelius Gurlitt was the custodian of his father’s collection, occasionally selling works to keep afloat but never supplementing the collection with new pictures.

For years, a task force — since 2016, in cooperation with the German Lost Art Foundation (DZK) in Magdeburg — researched the origin of the works.

The results have been sobering: Only 14 works by artists such as Max Liebermann, Henri Matisse, Thomas Couture and Adolph von Menzel have so far been clearly identified as Nazi-looted art. Thirteen of the works have been returned to their rightful owners.

Of the more than 1,500 works, 300 were shown to have been in the possession of the Gurlitt family before the Nazi era. The remaining pieces in the collection were examined for years by an international team of researchers to determine their provenance.

“We did everything feasible. I can’t remember a provenance research case where such intensive work was done,” Gilbert Lupfer, director of the German Lost Art Foundation, told DW in 2020, after the final report was made public.

Mere numbers are of little help here, Lupfer said. Of course, the 14 clearly identified cases — in terms of the entire collection — appear nominal. Nevertheless, “every single case solved is a contribution to what could be called historical justice. I am happy about every piece we were able to identify and return. Yet, there are still a lot of unknowns.”

The rest of the collection now belongs to the Kunstmuseum Bern, to which Cornelius Gurlitt surprisingly left the works in a will drawn up before his death in 2014.

Photographers taking pictures of Portrait of a Seated Young Woman by Thomas Couture, which was also identified as Nazi-looted art.

‘Portrait of a Seated Young Woman’ (1850) by Thomas Couture was also identified as Nazi-looted art and returned to heirs

Still many unanswered questions 

In Germany, much has been invested into provenance research over the past decade, both in terms of personnel and money. The German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg, for instance, was founded in 2015.

While the case of the Gurlitt art trove and its 80-year-old custodian were in the public spotlight for months, little public scrutiny has been given to German art museums’ purchases or alleged donations from the World War II period. Why are these works not posted on the internet in order to identify possible expropriated owners?

The story of Cornelius Gurlitt has made history twice over and has been the subject of books, films, and even plays. But questions remain: For instance, why did the art market, which was well aware of the existence of this dubious collection, continue to buy and auction works from the Gurlitt art trove even after the war? 

This article has been translated from German.

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