The discovery of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s Nazi-confiscated art hoard caused a scandal. His cousin Wolfgang’s story is less well known, but asks troubling questions of collections across the world
On 21 November last year, just a few hours after the Kunstmuseum Bern announced it would hold a press conference on the 24th that would then confirm its acceptance of Cornelius Gurlitt’s bequest containing works looted by the Nazis, the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, Austria, released a press bulletin. The Austrian museum announced the restitution of three works from its collection to the heirs of their original owners. The provenance information provided for two of the wor
The story of the Gurlitts, which exploded so spectacularly in Germany when Cornelius Gurlitt’s hoard of around 1,600 works, drawn largely from the collection of his Nazi-collaborator father, Hildebrand, was first discovered in Munich in 2012, has reached deep into Switzerland, but also into Austria. The main problem for Austria is not Hildebrand, however, but his art dealer-cousin Wolfgang, who is seven years his senior. And there is a further, fundamental difference: Vienna has had a restitution law since 1998 and, over the past 16 years, a significant number of major works have been returned by state, regional and communal museums. All large Austrian cultural institutions have established provenance commissions.
The Lentos museum established two commissions: in 1998 and in 2007. So far, the institution has returned 13 works, the most recent being two pieces by Lovis Corinth—Othello, 1884, and View from the studio, 1891—both from the Wolfgang Gurlitt Collection on which the museum was founded. Both paintings are on display there until 11 January, after which they are due to leave the museum for good.
The Wolfgang Gurlitt Museum
The City of Linz and Wolfgang Gurlitt struck a deal to co-found the Lentos museum in 1946, the same year that Gurlitt obtained Austrian citizenship. The art dealer, gallerist and collector, who had experienced money problems throughout his life—even going bankrupt in Berlin in the late 1920s—sold 111 paintings and 459 works on paper to the museum; these remain the core of Lentos’s collections.
The deal also envisaged that Gurlitt, who, by 1940, had settled near Linz, in Bad Aussee, a small village that would become amazingly crowded with high-ranking Nazis in the final months of the Second World War, would be the lifelong director of the new institution, called the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz, Wolfgang-Gurlitt-Museum.
Even at that stage, the name Gurlitt was cumbersome, and it would become increasingly embarrassing: just like his cousin Hildebrand, Wolfgang said that he had lost all of his documents during the Allied bombing of Germany, making it impossible to trace the provenance of the works he had sold to the City of Linz. There were profound doubts about the origin of many of the pieces. Moreover, as the years went by, officials began to criticise Wolfgang for entangling his public and private activities, particularly his role as a private art dealer. This conflict of interest led to his dismissal as director in January 1956; he was replaced by his assistant, Walter Kasten. In July 1960, the city decided to drop Gurlitt’s name from the museum’s title, opting to call it just the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz. But Gurlitt filed a lawsuit contesting this action and won. In 1963, the city was ordered by the court to restore the museum’s original name, although it did its best not to comply with the ruling. Wolfgang died soon afterwards, in 1965.
The museum in Linz was not all that Gurlitt was known for in those post-war years. He also had a gallery in a prime location in Munich and had amassed a large collection of pieces by Egon Schiele, including more than 100 works on paper. His entry into the world of art dealership and collecting had its roots in his father Fritz’s gallery and collection—Wolfgang inherited around 1,500 works from his father, who died in 1893, when Wolfgang was still a child. Fritz’s name lived on through the gallery, thanks to his wife Annarella Imhoff, who ran it with her new husband, Willi Waldecker, until 1912, when Wolfgang took it over. The gallery soon became known for the quality of its exhibitions of Modern and contemporary art.
Profiting in Hitler’s Germany
It was what happened in subsequent decades, however, that makes Wolfgang most notable today. He continued to collect and sell art all through the National Socialist years (1933-45), just as his cousin Hildebrand did. During the Second World War, both cousins were very active in art dealing and had excellent contacts with high-ranking Nazis, right up to the special commissioners in charge of the unrealised Führermuseum in Linz, Hans Posse, and his successor, Hermann Voss.
Hildebrand eventually became one of the most important dealers for the Nazis: he was “one of [the] chief official Paris agents for Linz”, wrote the US military’s Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) in a report about art trafficking in the occupied French capital city in the early 1940s. But the Allied investigators regarded Wolfgang as of marginal importance in relation to the Führermuseum: a “close Voss contact”, but “not seriously implicated” in the plans. “Hildebrand should not be confused with his cousin, the Berlin-Bad Aussee dealer Wolfgang Gurlitt who had almost no connection with the Linz [Führermuseum],” the ALIU report stated.
The ALIU prosecutors reported that Wolfgang’s gallery had “quite a good reputation until 1938”, but suspected him of having “bought looted Polish works of art in 1939” and of buying “works of art in Paris on behalf of the Hamburg Museum”. But a more detailed picture has appeared more recently, as art historians have gathered evidence of significant art dealing activities by Wolfgang Gurlitt during the war. For instance, in 1940, he received a 25% cut from the sale of works confiscated from German museums in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Cologne and Munich, among others. On another occasion, he was allowed to travel to Switzerland “in the interest of the Reich” to visit “local interested parties”. He also bought art that was known to have been confiscated by the Nazis, including Schiele’s Krumau. Städtchen am Fluss (Town by the River), 1916, from an auction at Vienna’s Dorotheum. The Lentos museum returned the painting, which was purchased in 1942, to the original owners’ descendants in 2003.
Unashamedly continuing their trade
Both Hildebrand and Wolfgang were arrested immediately after the war. Their Jewish ancestry (on their grandmother’s side) and favourable testimonials from the German art world helped win their release. Prior to the war, the cousins were known for supporting artists who were later labelled as “degenerate” by the Nazis. In fact, Hildebrand was accused of being a “Bolshevik” and fired from his job as the director of the Kunstverein in Hamburg in 1933 for organising exhibitions of artists such as Max Pechstein, Käthe Kollwitz and Emil Nolde. Meanwhile, Wolfgang was on good terms with the artists Alfred Kubin and Oskar Kokoschka, and Schiele considered him as one of his preferred art dealers.
Moreover, Wolfgang had had severe problems with the Gestapo, not only because of his Jewish roots and his questionable acquaintances, but also because of his Jewish lover and business partner, Lilly Christiansen Agoston. On 28 September 1940, the Berlin NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) had reported: “The personal and business relationships of [Wolfgang] Gurlitt are so confused and unclear that it is impossible to give an adequate assessment… In general, Gurlitt is known to be unreliable.”
Also in the two cousins’ favour was that other members of the Gurlitt family had been persecuted by the Nazis. These factors enabled Hildebrand and Wolfgang to keep their collections and remain active in the art world in the 1950s.
But this was true of many art dealers that had been involved with National Socialism. As early as the end of 1945, the ALIU had reported: “It is alarming to observe that in this first year of peace in Europe, a majority of the collaborationist dealers, collectors and agents, who willingly aided in the cultural despoliation of their own countries, have avoided serious prosecution. Many of them, not only nationals of neutral countries, but also formerly occupied countries, are continuing their trade.”
In the post-war years, Wolfgang remained in Bad Aussee. Hildebrand had moved to Düsseldorf, where he was appointed the managing director of the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen and began to lend works of art from his own collection, including works to a successful Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich in 1949. For the exhibition “German Art: Masterpieces of the 20th Century”, held in Lucerne in 1953, Hildebrand not only loaned works but also served as a member of the show’s honorary advisory committee.
According to the website lootedart.com, in 1954 alone, works from Hildebrand’s collection were shown at the Landesgalerie Hannover, the Kunstverein Düsseldorf, the Kunstverein Hannover, the Kunsthalle Bremen and Essen’s Museum Folkwang. In the catalogue of the 1955 US tour of “German Watercolours: Drawings and Prints 1905-55”, Thomas M. Messer, the director of the American Federation of Arts, thanked Hildebrand for his generosity: “Dr H. Gurlitt, Director of the Art Association for the Rhineland and Westphalia, is the major contributor to the exhibition, which, owing to his generosity, could be planned on an impressive scale.”
With stunning continuity, Wolfgang carried on his public and private activities after the war. In May 1947, the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz opened the first big post-war exhibition of pieces by Alfred Kubin. Between May and August 1949, an exhibition on Schiele and Gustav Klimt was held in Zurich: in the catalogue, the art historian Erwin Gradmann thanked Wolfgang Gurlitt, for loaning “a considerable number of drawings”. A year later, a Schiele exhibition at the Künstlerhaus, Salzburg, featured 102 works on paper exclusively from the Wolfgang Gurlitt Collection.
In 1951, Wolfgang also organised the first major Austrian display of Oskar Kokoschka’s work since 1937. In that same year, Wolfgang’s partner Lilly Christiansen Agoston died. Offering his condolences, Kokoschka wrote these grateful words to Wolfgang: “What explanation can there be that you, my dear friend Wolfgang Gurlitt, have succeeded in finding most of my lithographs and drawings again?… The works were scattered across the four corners of the world. But, as if attracted by a magical force, they have fallen back into your hands, usually intact, although a little yellowed, despite the excommunication of a totalitarian regime.” Also in the 1950s, Wolfgang organised another show of works by Schiele at his Munich gallery: 58 of the pieces came from his own collection.
In the year after Austria introduced its extensive restitution law of 1998, Walter Schuster, the head of the Historical Archives at the City of Linz, wrote a report based on his extensive research into the Wolfgang Gurlitt Collection. His conclusion: “The inventory books and documents of the Neue Galerie [der Stadt Linz] only contain information for a few of the 111 oil paintings from the collection Gurlitt, in regard to the provenance or on the acquisition by Gurlitt. For the 459 prints in the Gurlitt collection there is an almost a complete lack of reliable provenance information.”
The known facts have not changed substantially in recent years. Last November, Nina Kirsch, a spokeswoman for the Lentos museum, suggested in an email to The Art Newspaper that the investigation into the Wolfgang Gurlitt Collection is still far from complete. She indicated that the commission tasked with looking into the collection will need more time because of the large number of pieces that still have to be reviewed.
But the museum has finally managed to shed the Gurlitt name: the opportunity to rid itself of it for good came in 2003 with the creation of a new building on the banks of the Danube. Since then, it has been known as the Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz. His stain on the provenance of works in the museum’s collection, however, cannot be erased.
The Lentos museum, however, was not alone in buying works from Wolfgang Gurlitt; many museums and collectors around the world acquired works directly or indirectly from him, or indeed borrowed them. Austrian experts agree that every transaction should be thoroughly checked.
One curious aspect of this troubling story is that very little is known about the relationship between Hildebrand and Wolfgang. And what were the connections between Cornelius Gurlitt, who had around 1,600 works from his father’s collection in his flat in the Munich district of Schwabing and in his house in Salzburg, and Wolfgang, who had a gallery in the centre of the Bavarian capital, not far from his cousin’s flat?
But the biggest questions that remain relate to the extent to which the Austrian, German and Swiss art worlds—and those far beyond these regions—knew about the Gurlitts’ dealings before their story was reignited in the news in recent years. We have a rather broad picture, but so much still remains unanswered.
The cousins united by Modern art and Nazi collaboration
The Gurlitts had been a prominent family in German culture and the arts since the early 19th century. Among them were art historians, art critics, painters, musicians, composers, musicologists, dancers, university scholars and writers. The two cousins are destined to be their infamous legacy.
Hildebrand (Dresden 1895-Oberhausen 1956)
An art historian and art dealer, Hildebrand was a museum director in Zwickau (1925-30) and then at the Kunstverein in Hamburg until 1933. Under the Nazis, he played a major role in dealing confiscated art in occupied Paris. In 1945, he moved with his family and collection from Dresden to Bavaria. Part of his collection was taken into custody by the prosecutors for the US military’s Art Looting Investigating Unit (ALIU), but was returned to him in December 1950.
After the war he chose to restart his career as a museum director and collector in Düsseldorf.
His son, Cornelius, inherited his collection and lived a reclusive life in Munich until his death on 6 May 2014. In his apartment in Munich and also in his house in Salzburg, German authorities found around 1,600 works of art, mainly his father’s collection. In the trove were also a large number of works by his ancestor, the artist Louis Gurlitt (1812-97).
Wolfgang (Berlin 1888-Munich 1965)
Gallerist, art dealer and passionate collector, Wolfgang was the son of the famous gallerist Fritz Gurlitt, who, among others, had made the French Impressionists and Edvard Munch known in Germany and had exhibited Arnold Böcklin and Max Liebermann. Wolfgang inherited his father’s gallery. Little is known about his activities during the Second World War.
In 1940, he moved to Bad Aussee, Austria, a stone’s throw away from the Altaussee Salt Mine in which the Monuments Men found some 6,000 works of art amassed by the Nazis for the unrealised Führermuseum in Linz.
After the war he was the co-founder and director of the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz, Wolfgang-Gurlitt-Museum (now the Lentos museum). Until his death he also owned the “Galerie Gurlitt” in the centre of Munich, not far from the Schwabing district. The gallery was active in organising exhibits and publishing catalogues until the mid 1970s.
He was portrayed by a number of artists, including Lovis Corinth, Munch, Max Pechstein and Oskar Kokoschka. His portrait is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum im Kulturspeicher in Würzburg, Germany. A portrait of Wolfgang by Corinth is in the Lentos museum.