Pressure Mounts to Return Nazi-Looted Art

New York Times 11 November 2013
By Alision Smale an Melissa Eddy

BERLIN — The mysterious discovery of 1,400 artworks apparently collected by a German dealer under the Nazis continued to ripple disturbingly through Germany and the art world on Sunday, prompting reports of a deal with Hitler’s propaganda chief and calls for Germans to do more to return lost works to Jewish heirs.

The Bild newspaper reported on Sunday that the dealer — an art connoisseur named Hildebrand Gurlitt who supported artists banned by the Nazis but also dealt in stolen art with Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels — arranged with Goebbels in 1940 to pay 4,000 Swiss francs for 200 pieces of “degenerate art,” the Nazi term to describe many modernist European works.

In southwestern Germany, meanwhile, the police said they had recovered 22 “valuable” artworks after a call from someone who gave an address just outside Stuttgart to go there and retrieve them.

Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee in Germany, called on the German government to move decisively to clear up ownership questions surrounding the art.

“It is a disgrace that laws are still in existence that justify injustice,” Ms. Berger said in a statement, referring to Nazi-era laws that leave the ownership status of some confiscated art unclear. She also noted the poignancy of having the art come to light as Jews gathered in Berlin this weekend to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the beginning of Hitler’s murderous persecution of the Jews.

Paris Match published what it said was a photograph of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius, who reportedly kept the 1,400 works stashed for decades in a Munich apartment belonging to his family. A neighbor of Mr. Gurlitt’s in Salzburg, Austria, confirmed that the picture was that of the elderly man.

Der Spiegel magazine also reported receiving a typewritten and signed letter last week from Cornelius Gurlitt that listed the return address as the same apartment where the art was found. In the letter, the writer praised “your spiritually rich and nobly minded” magazine, but asked that the Gurlitt family name no longer be mentioned in it.

The large trove of art was discovered by authorities in February 2012, but became public knowledge only in recent days, stunning the art world and setting off a scramble to establish ownership. Authorities have publicly identified just a handful of the works.

In its report on the Gurlitt-Goebbels contract, Bild included a list of the 200 works that were to change hands, including ones by, among others, Picasso, Chagall and Gauguin.

After World War II, Hildebrand Gurlitt reported that most of his collection and all of his inventory had been destroyed in the 1945 bombing of Dresden. Twenty to 25 works listed as belonging to him were included in an exhibition that toured the United States in the mid-1950s. He died in a traffic accident in 1956.

The police in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg said on Sunday that they had received a call from a resident of Kornwestheim, about six miles north of Stuttgart, which sent officers to a house there on Saturday, where they recovered 22 artworks.

The police did not identify the caller, but Bild named the man as Nikolaus Frässle, the brother-in-law of Cornelius Gurlitt. The police said that the caller had said that news reports led him to fear for the safety of the works. The police took the works “to a safe place,” the statement said. Bild said Mr. Frässle was married to Cornelius Gurlitt’s sister, identified in official archives as Nicoline Benita Renate Gurlitt, who was born in Hamburg in 1935, three years after Cornelius. Bild said she had died but provided no further details.

The contract with Goebbels listed Hildebrand Gurlitt as living in Hamburg at the time. At some point during World War II, the family moved to or near Dresden, and fled farther south to Bavaria as the war was ending.

The elder Gurlitt was interrogated by the Allies, and his collection — listed as a few hundred works — was kept until 1950, when it was returned to him. The origins of those pieces — and of the far larger cache found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt — is unclear. German authorities have said that research is needed before they can publish a list, but museums and the heirs of collectors who were stripped of their works by the Nazis have urged swift action to return artworks to their rightful owners.

The Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, meanwhile, reported that a painting by Max Liebermann, one of the few of the 1,400 works to be publicly identified, was listed in Germany’s official databank for art seized by the Nazis. The piece, depicting two men riding horses on a beach, is sought by the descendants of David Friedmann, who had been a sugar refiner in Breslau, a former German city now known as Wroclaw in Poland.
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