Billion-euro Munich art haul reveals historical Nazi theft
The 1,500 works found in squalid apartment include pieces by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir
That evening the Nazi propaganda minister noted in his diary that he had been given “carte blanche to seize these works in all museums”. He entrusted the job to Adolf Ziegler, then president of the Reich Fine Art Chamber.
In a 10-day trip of some 6,000km, Ziegler performed one of the greatest cultural smash-and-grabs in modern times, visiting 101 museums in 74 cities and seizing some 21,000 works of art.
On July 19th, 1937, the hastily collected works were displayed in Munich under the heading Degenerate Art. Just in case any of the visitors – 420,000 in all – intended to enjoy the greatest ever show of modern art in Germany, they were handed tendentious red pamphlets: “Tormented canvas, psychological decay, sick fantasies, mentally ill bunglers: visit the exhibition Degenerate Art.”
Despite their low opinion of the works, the Nazis knew their value and after the exhibition had completed its tour of Germany they began selling many of the works on the international market through trusted art dealers.
One of these dealers was Hildebrand Gurlitt, father of Cornelius. Born into an artistic family in Dresden, Gurlitt was an early champion of Picasso, Klee and others – a passion that had brought him into conflict with the Nazi authorities.
He established himself in Hamburg in 1930 but was eventually deposed as head of the city’s Kunstverein (art society) because he had a Jewish grandmother. Gurlitt remained on in the city, running a private gallery visited by many international visitors including a young Samuel Beckett.
In his diary of November 1936, the Irish man recorded viewing works by Max Beckmann and etchings by Otto Dix.
As he continued his journey south through Germany in 1936 and 1937, visiting galleries along the way, Beckett noted that directors were literally ripping artworks off the walls. Most ended in the hands of a small circle of dealers, including Gurlitt, who were controversial in German art circles because of their dispensation from the Nazis to deal in the so-called degenerate art.
Gurlitt defended the practice later, saying he helped German Jews turn their artworks into badly needed foreign currency as they fled the country. At some point in the Nazi era, Gurlitt began hoarding the art he was snapping up at bargain-basement prices.
But his entire art collection, stored in his Dresden apartment, was destroyed in the bombing of the Saxon capital in February 1945.
At least that was the story he told Allied interrogators. They believed him and even classified Gurlitt as a victim of Nazi persecution because of his Jewish grandmother.
Gurlitt continued in the art business until he was killed in a car crash in 1956. Some years later investigators quizzed his widow Helene about the looted art that passed through her husband’s gallery.