A review by lawyer Henning Kahmann of the catalogue of the Gurlitt exhibitions in Berne and Bonn (Stiftung Kunstmuseum Bern und Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH (Hg.): Bestandsaufnahme Gurlitt. München 2017, ISBN 978-3-7774-2962-5).
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English summary (by Henning Kahmann)
The exhibitions’ goal was to explain the role of Hildebrand Gurlitt in the process of Nazi art looting. The many articles in the catalogue contribute to this aim, also to the exhibitions’ other goal of acknowledging collectors who were persecuted and artists who were ostracized by the Nazis. However, the catalogue does not make clear how much of the art of the Gurlitt stock was “looted”. The definition of looted art (“Raubkunst”) remains unclear. This leads to confusion. The accusation towards Gurlitt of having enriched himself excessively at the expense of Nazi persecutees is lacking a substantiated back up at the crucial point. This is not helpful for the heirs of Nazi victims who seek indemnification.
The pictorial section of the catalogue shows 296 works of the 1566 items of the Gurlitt stock. 289 of them are classified into four categories. The catalogue does not provide an overview on how many works belong to which category. By my own count 53 of the works (17,9%) belong to the first category: The provenance was clarified by the provenance researchers dealing with the Gurlitt stock, and there is no suspicion that the works were looted. 185 works (62,5%) belong to the second: There are gaps in the known provenance, but there is “currently no suspicion that the works were looted”. 50 works (16,9%) belong to the third: There are gaps in the provenance and also a “looting suspicion cannot be excluded” (“ein Raubkunstverdacht derzeit nicht ausgeschlossen”). One single work in the pictorial section is categorized as looted. This categorization stems from the fact that Berne does not want to possess works which are suspected of having been looted. Seven works in the pictorial section, which were apparently not inherited by Berne, are not categorized.
The catalogue provides at least one example illustrating each of the four categories, which is helpful for an understanding of Gurlitt’s role. It also shows how difficult and time consuming provenance research is. A clear example of the first category are 38 works, which Hildebrand Gurlitt bought from the non-persecuted notary Delapalme from Paris. Delapalme had sold them to him in 1942 probably for one million Francs. The catalogue puts a caricature by Max Beckmann in the second category. Gurlitt bought it in 1940 from the German government, because it had seized the work in 1937 from a public museum for being “degenerate”. Three works from the collection of the Jewish art collector Fritz Salo Glaser are put in the third category, where a looting suspicion cannot be excluded. One knows that Glaser was persecuted in Germany until 1945 and later discriminated against when the Stalinist rule began in his home town Dresden. However, one does not know when the works were transferred to Gurlitt. One only knows that they were in Gurlitt’s stock after 1945. The one looted work is a work which Gurlitt bought in 1938 from a Hamburg Jew preparing her emigration. Gurlitt bought it for 150 Reichsmarks and his later attempts to sell it failed.
The many case studies in the catalogue as well as the biographical texts on Gurlitt and his business connections, do indeed contribute to a better understanding of Gurlitt’s role in the process of Nazi looting. However the catalogue is lacking an introduction that explains his actions from the perspective of economic and contemporary history. This introduction should have contained a clear definition of looted art in order to avoid confusion. It arises from this problem: The catalogue does not consider purchases by Germans from French citizens, who were not persecuted, as looting, only cases where the persecution was the cause of the loss. A case in point is the Delapalme case. However, these kinds of voluntary sales are often considered elsewhere to be an act of looting – not at the expense of the seller, but at the expense of the French economy. The catalogue should have differentiated its understanding of looting from these cases more clearly. The review provides a sketch of an explanation why these voluntary sales can be considered acts of looting by the Germans – and of collaboration by the voluntary seller. With a clearer differentiation the catalogue would have helped correcting (or understanding) the notion that the stock is largely compiled of looted art.
The catalogue contains a number of accusations against Gurlitt, in particular that he had enriched himself excessively at the expense of Jews. In order to back this up the catalogue provides indications that Gurlitt earned a lot of money during the Nazi era. However it does not provide arguments for the allegation that he did so at the expense of persecutees. In order to do so, the catalogue should have discussed if Gurlitt had participated in seizures of Jewish collections by German authorities, and if Gurlitt had exploited the exigency of persecutees by not paying them the fair value for works they sold him. After five years of research it would have been necessary to back the accusations on at least the six cases where works from the Gurlitt stock are known to have been looted. It would have been better to include works that were sold before 2012. Out of the 1566 works that the Gurlitt stock was composed of in 2012 Gurlitt bought only one from a Jew during her persecution. He bought two of the six works after the war. In one case it is unclear if he bought it at the end of the war or afterwards. Gurlitt bought another two works during the Nazi era from German museums, who had helped in the expropriation of their Jewish owners. There is no evidence that Gurlitt helped German authorities in seizing art from Jewish collectors (neither in Germany nor France). One may come to the conclusion that Gurlitt’s actions were immoral and he was important in the Nazi era looting process, possibly even that he had enriched himself excessively at the expense of persecutees; but not discussing these facts while subjecting him to these kinds of accusations is uncompliant with academic standards.
Accusations of this kind do not help the Nazi persecutees (mostly their heirs) in their pursuit of some form of indemnification. They deter the (probably numerous) collectors, who suspect they have looted art in their collection, from disclosing this. The reputational damage of doing so is too high. In the Gurlitt case this deterrence was intensified by the treatment of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s son by German authorities. In the interest of those seeking art works their families lost due to Nazi persecution authorities should much rather provide incentives for transparency, rather than deterrence.
Kunst und Recht magazine No. 5/6 2017 http://www.kur-journal.de/