This fall’s revelation that a trove of 1500 Nazi-looted paintings stayed for years in a Munich apartment spread shock waves around the world. Not only was this startling news for art scholars, curators and collectors. The political and legal aspects of the ongoing story are equally astounding, not the least being the fact that the German government raided Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment and found the cache nearly two years ago. And no one leaked it. Probably the most amazing!    cornelius

One of the more interesting tidbits relates to the composition of the collection. Many works in it were those of so-called “degenerate” artists, including German Expressionists of the early 20th century, such as Grosz and Nolde, but also Chagall and Kandinsky. Despite Hitler’s scorn for them, his henchmen made sure they were swept into the looting parties, and a German exhibition in 1937 showcased them. They may not have been the Fuehrer’s taste, but more savvy and value-conscious connoisseurs such as Goering managed to take a few home.  Gurlitt’s father, a dealer to those fine clients, stashed plenty. What was leftover in his son’s lair is said to be worth more than $1 billion in today’s art marketplace.

 (left) Cornelius Gurlitt (photo from Paris Match)


There are so many facets of this story, and the whole thing is clearly yet to be told. For instance, when the art historians and curators known as the Monuments Men, soon to be glorified by George Clooney’s forthcoming film of the same name, interviewed the senior Gurlitt after World War II, he said that art he’d had in this possession and even the records he’d kept of it were lost in the bombing of Dresden. Eventually, the Allied art experts held some of the paintings, but about five years after the end of the war, Gurlitt got them back. Instant de-Nazification of this art dealer. Not uncommon, according to The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, a book by scholar Jonathan Petropoulos, a friend who was kind enough to endorse After the Auction when it came out. Many art dealers who prospered by trafficking in looted art were very quickly back in business with a short period after the war ended.

Two of the other lingering questions in this story are 1)Why did it take Germany almost two years to break the story? and 2) Why is Gurlitt still a free man?

But the thing I find most amazing that hasn’t really been answered yet is how did the Hildebrand Gurlitt operate his business with the apparent blessing of his Nazi clients as a man with a Jewish grandmother? He’d lost museum positions because of this and feared he’d be sent to a labor camp–but wasn’t, he said, because cooperation was his only option. How did he survive in a regime where being a “quarter Jew” was Jewish enough to at least be put out of business?  hildebrand

The headlines will continue as this story unravels more and more. Stay tuned.

(left) Hildebrand Gurlitt, Nazi art dealer, and father of Cornelius



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