The Persistent Crime of Nazi-Looted Art

The Atlantic 11 March 2018
By Sophie Gilbert

The discovery of more than 1,500 artworks in a flat in Munich serves as an inconvenient reminder of one of the unresolved wrongs of the Third Reich.

The discovery, when it was made, came entirely by chance. On September 22, 2010, a stooped, white-haired man in his late 70s taking an evening train from Zurich to Munich was asked by customs officers why he was crossing the Swiss border. The gentleman, Cornelius Gurlitt, responded with such nervousness that he triggered the officers’ suspicions. When they searched his person, they found an envelope he was carrying that contained 18 brand-new 500-Euro notes—9,000 Euros in total.

The cash itself wasn’t a crime; Gurlitt had reportedly visited Switzerland to sell a picture to a gallery in Bern. But the strangeness of the situation led to further investigation of Gurlitt’s finances, and a search warrant for his Munich apartment that in February 2012 uncovered one of the most extraordinary stashes of art since the end of World War II. Inside a small flat in a boxy white building, hidden in filing cabinets and suitcases, investigators found more than 1,500 works by artists including Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Liebermann, Chagall, Durer, and Delacroix. The German authorities were investigating Gurlitt for tax evasion; what they found instead was an amassment of art that was immediately, incontrovertibly suspicious.

The trove was seized by Bavarian officials and taken away for inspection. It was also kept quiet for more than a year, until the German magazine Focus published a breathy report about the discovery, alleging that the value of the secret masterpieces could total one billion Euros. The article also noted the baggage associated with the Gurlitt name: that the items hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt had likely been acquired by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of the most notorious art dealers employed by the Third Reich. The fact that the Bavarian authorities seem to have sat on the find was attributed to the reality that they just didn’t know what to do with what they’d uncovered. In that sense, the Gurlitt Dossier, as it came to be known, was representative of so much about Nazi art plunder. It was huge. It was exceedingly complicated. Above all, the trove was an inconvenient reminder that the issue of looted and confiscated art persists as one of the unresolved crimes of the Nazi regime.

In the decade leading up to 1945, it’s estimated that the Nazis stole one-fifth of all the artworks in Europe. The scale of such theft is hard to comprehend, and even harder to quantify. The figure usually touted is 650,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, books, and other works, taken from museums and churches and private collections across the continent. But smaller numbers also offer some sense of the absurdity of the plundering. In 1938, as Susan Ronald writes in her book Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures, a warehouse on Köpenikerstrasse in Berlin was filled with so many items (more than 12,000) stolen from Germany and newly invaded Austria that it qualified by default as one of Germany’s largest museums.

The peak in sales of confiscated and stolen works at the time, intended to help fund the Nazi war effort, led to a boom for the global art market: Between 1941 and 1942, Lynn Nicholas wrote in her seminal 1994 book The Rape of Europa, one French auction house sold more than one million objects. Many works, whether taken by force from collectors, removed from galleries, or bought under heavy duress, made their way to American museums and collectors, as well as all across Europe. The question of restitution has long been a taxing one. Over the last two decades, as relatives and heirs have increasingly taken legal action to get their property back, many museums have elected to challenge claims on disputed works rather than return works to the families they were stolen from. “There’s a lack of a uniform approach to it” compared to other ethical issues in the art world, says Nicholas O’Donnell, a lawyer specializing in restitution cases and the author of the 2017 book A Tragic Fate: Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art.

Much of that comes down to reluctance on the part of museums and collectors to acknowledge that works might be looted, or even to investigate items whose histories are murky. Provenance research is an expensive undertaking, and institutions aren’t thrilled to see works move from their collections back into private hands. “Since I’ve worked in museums, colleagues have told me every year, ‘Oh, we hope finally, finally, this discussion will be over,’” Nina Zimmer, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland, told me. “And whenever there was a claim from a lawyer or a family, ‘Oh, we hope that this is the last claim.’ We need a new framework for this, a new awareness, a new attitude.”

Zimmer is one of the curators of two recent exhibitions showing works from the Gurlitt Dossier in Bern and Bonn, Germany. (I attended both as the guest of the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern and the Bonn Museum of Modern Art.) Later this year, both exhibitions will head to Berlin. The two shows reckon with the loaded nature of the Gurlitt trove, exploring Hildebrand Gurlitt’s difficult history as a man who was one-quarter Jewish, a devotee of modern art, and ultimately, a loyal emissary of the Third Reich. They also point to the need for museums around the world to more thoroughly engage now with the question of where their collections came from—not only to belatedly compensate survivors and their families, but also to expand viewers’ understanding of the works themselves. “If you clarify the history of a work of art, you liberate it,” said Andrea Baresel-Brand, the head of the German task force investigating the Gurlitt works at a press conference in Bern in November. “It opens up the past.”

The pillaging of artworks by the Nazis took a variety of forms. Before war broke out, modern or abstract works disliked by Hitler were confiscated from German museums and dealers. Several thousand were reportedly burned in 1939, at a conflagration orchestrated by Hildebrand Gurlitt. After Germany invaded Austria in 1938, then Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Luxembourg, Holland, and Belgium, artworks in private Jewish collections and in national museums were forcibly taken. And as Jewish families fled their homes in countries under Nazi occupation, many sold their art collections for absurdly low prices in order to raise funds to leave. Some abandoned them altogether. Either way, the artworks ended up in Nazi hands.

This meticulous, systematic theft served two purposes. Art was of the utmost importance to the Third Reich: Hitler, a failed painter, saw the power of art as propaganda, and was intent on establishing a new museum in Linz, Austria, that would pay sufficient tribute to the perceived glories of his empire. He also had a particular loathing of Expressionist or abstract art, which he considered to be “degenerate,” and a symptom of Jewish and Bolshevik artists. As the Nazis robbed Europe of its masterpieces, works deemed to be “degenerate” were either sold for cash to fund the Nazi regime, or were traded for the classical, figurative works Hitler desired.

In June 1939, for instance, the Swiss auctioneer Theodor Fischer held an art sale in Lucerne, Switzerland, in which he offered 126 “degenerate” works by artists including Matisse, Braque, van Gogh, and Klee. All had been confiscated from German national museums, and were being auctioned to raise currency for the Nazi wars in Europe. Despite the circumstances, a handful of Americans attended, including the publisher Joseph Pulitzer Jr., who was in Europe for his honeymoon. “To safeguard this art for posterity, I bought—defiantly!” Lynn Nicholas quotes Pulitzer as saying in The Rape of Europa. The director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr., didn’t attend, being aware of the auction’s suspect reputation. But he used another dealer, Curt Valentin, as an intermediary. “I am just as glad not to have the museum’s name or my own associated with the auction,” Barr later wrote to the manager of the museum, Thomas Mabry.

“Degenerate” works aren’t classified as looted, given that they were taken from national collections rather than from private owners. But the Fischer auction speaks to the blind eye many were turning to art sales in the Nazi era, even before war began. In Switzerland alone, Susan Ronald recounts, the four favored art dealers used by the Third Reich—Ferdinand Möller, Bernhard Bohmer, Karl Buchholz, and Hildebrand Gurlitt—sold some 8,700 objects between 1937 and 1941. Curt Valentin, a half-Jewish refugee from Germany who operated the Karl Buchholz Gallery in New York and who died in 1954, has long been considered the conduit for a number of looted artworks that found their way to the U.S.

The feverish nature of the art market during the Second World War, and ever since, offers at least one straightforward reason for both the Nazi art theft itself and for why items have never been restituted. “There is no cultural genre in which money plays as big a role as visual arts,” Rein Wolfs, the director of the Bonn Museum of Modern Art, told me. “Dance, or theater, they aren’t about goods. But art, it’s about goods. There’s so much confusion around it because there’s so much money involved.”

The question of money was raised almost 20 years ago, at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, when the writer, activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel delivered an opening statement to representatives of 44 governments, as well as museum directors and activists who’d gathered to tackle the long-dormant issue of Nazi-looted property. “As you are about to begin a three-day introspection of your national psyche, may I first ask a few questions,” Wiesel said. “Why so late? Why only now? … Why has it taken so long in fulfilling the biblical command that stolen property must be returned to its owners?”

It’s a more complex question than it might seem. After the war, the newly established Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program established by the Allied armies (colloquially known as the Monuments Men, and immortalized in the 2014 film starring George Clooney and Matt Damon) undertook the hefty task of identifying looted art in Europe, finding it, and returning it to its rightful owners. But the scale of the theft was just too vast. Several thousand works currently sitting in museums around the world have gaps in their provenance that indicate they could have been stolen from Jewish families. And, as the Gurlitt Dossier seems to prove, many more are in private hands, and may never be discovered.

The Nazi plunder of Europe’s art treasures was so extreme that when the Allies started making efforts to return stolen art after the war, the project they faced was herculean. As The Rape of Europa documents, the first charge involved simply locating all the masterpieces that had been looted from museums and private collections and hidden in thousands of odd locations that weren’t always well suited for preservation. Many of the finest works were stashed in mines underground, which offered shelter from bombs and cool, relatively dry air. The Altaussee salt mine in Styria, Austria, was loaded with more than 12,500 artworks and other objects, including Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child and Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, both intended for the planned Führermuseum in Linz.

The Altaussee mine was originally rigged with explosives by the Nazis to destroy the works rather than let them fall into enemy hands. But local miners and Nazi officials who were appalled by the plan removed the larger bombs in violation of their orders before the mines were sealed. The Allies discovered the mine’s location after Captain Robert Posey, one of the Monuments Men, had a toothache while visiting Trier, Germany. The dentist he visited had a son-in-law who was an art scholar, and who’d assisted Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command, in his efforts to plunder art both for the Nazi regime and for his own, significant collections. The son-in-law’s information eventually led to the disclosure of the Altaussee stash, which speaks to the haphazard nature of how so many works were recovered.

Even after artworks were found, the process of moving them safely was immensely tricky. The Michelangelo Madonna alone took several days to pack. After they were transported to central collecting points in Munich, Wiesbaden, and Offenbach, the works were identified, photographed, and taken to the countries they’d been removed from. The MFAA officers, understaffed and underfunded, returned what some estimate to be 5 million items between 1945 and 1951. But countless more remained missing.

Complicating things further was the policy implemented by the U.S. government and the MFAA to return items to their countries of origin and charge the authorities there with restituting them. This decision was a practical one—the MFAA simply didn’t have the manpower to seek out individual owners. But in practice, this meant that works were often returned to the same people who’d stolen them. In Bavaria in particular, Nazi families aggressively pursued paintings that had been confiscated from them. Henriette von Schirach, Hitler’s private secretary, paid 300 Deutschmarks to reclaim a painting by Jan van der Heyden, which had been confiscated from a Jewish family fleeing Vienna in 1941. Even Hermann Goering’s wife, Emmy, successfully received works she made claim to. As recently as 2015, Goering’s daughter, Edda, was still requesting that the Bavarian government return some of the possessions that had been taken from her father at the end of the war.

In the years immediately following the war, many Jewish collectors tried to track down their missing items, often choosing to simply buy them back. Nicholas cites a woman who found a decorative box embossed with her family’s initials in a Paris antiques store. The Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg was still missing 71 pictures from his significant collection in 1953, but by 1958 he’d narrowed the list to 20. In 1974 his heirs seized a work by Braque that Rosenberg had owned at an auction in Versailles. And in 2014, the German authorities investigating the Gurlitt trove confirmed that a Matisse in the haul was another one of Rosenberg’s missing paintings.

If early efforts at restitution were committed, though piecemeal, by the 1950s those efforts had begun to wane. The atrocities committed by the Nazi regime that came to light made the pillaging of art seem less significant by comparison. And in the aftermath of the war, many of those involved found it more convenient to look forward rather than back. During the Cold War in the 1970s and ’80s, when West Germany was a critical ally of the United States, the geopolitical conflict and its numerous distractions meant that much that had happened during World War II—from art theft to Nazi involvement—was obfuscated or ignored.

“Nobody wanted to ask hard questions,” O’Donnell, the lawyer and restitution expert, told me. “But what the end of the Cold War did was give people the opportunity to step back and revisit some things that had previously been accepted.” O’Donnell also cites the 1994 publication of Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa as a consequential moment in bringing the subject of Nazi art theft back into the light. “Its influence can’t be understated,” he said. “Not that it was news—people knew what had happened. But [the book] helped people understand that the looting of art wasn’t incidental to other Nazi art crimes. It was a substantial and organized crime itself.”

Then, in 1994, the Austrian government purchased more than 5,000 artworks from Dr. Rudolf Leopold, an ophthalmologist and avid art collector. One of them was Portrait of Wally, a 1912 painting by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele that was owned at the beginning of World War II by Lea Bondi, a Jewish art dealer. In 1939 after the Austrian Anschluss, Bondi was pressured into transferring the painting to another dealer, Friedrich Welz. The U.S. government seized Welz’s collection at the end of the war and returned the works to the Austrian government. In 1953, Bondi learned her painting was in the Austrian National Gallery and asked Leopold for his help in retrieving it, but he—unbeknownst to her—purchased it for himself instead.

In 1997 Portrait of Wally was among works from Leopold’s collection lent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the time, curators and museum directors expressed to The New York Times that it wasn’t their place to question the circumstances in which artworks had been acquired. Bondi had since died, but her heirs continued her efforts to reclaim her property and, in January 1998, Robert Morgenthau, the District Attorney for New York County, attempted to seize the painting from MoMA to keep it from being sent back to Austria. The ongoing legal battles lasted more than 10 years, and contributed to a new public awareness regarding the restitution of looted art.

At the end of 1998, the Washington Conference tried to wrestle with the question of why so many assets seized from Jews during the Holocaust had never been restituted. “Is it that we all felt the memory of the tragedy to be so sacred that we preferred not to talk about its concrete, financial, and material implications?” Wiesel asked. “Or is it that the task of protecting that memory was so noble, so painful, but so urgent that we simply felt it undignified to think of anything else?” He concluded that in the immediate post-war years, “survivors had more urgent problems to solve than to demand restitution. They had to adjust to freedom, life, and death—normal death.”

At the end of the conference the 44 countries represented endorsed a list of 11 principles for dealing with Nazi-looted art. Works that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not restituted should be identified. Records and archives should be opened. Efforts should be made to identify looted works, and to publicize those works in order to seek out heirs. The families of pre-war owners should be encouraged to come forward. The intentions of the Washington Principles were admirable, but they applied only to items in museum collections, not to anything in private hands. And, as legal tangles proved over the next 20 years, museums were inconsistent at best in their adherence to the commitments their governments had made.

The discovery of the Gurlitt trove was shrouded in mystery. Why did the Bavarian authorities wait so long to announce what they’d found? Why, if the collection had been acquired legally, as Cornelius Gurlitt insisted, was it confiscated? How had Cornelius managed to exist off the radar for much of his life, unknown to social services and tax authorities, and a virtual ghost?

The strangeness extends back, of course, to Hildebrand Gurlitt. Born in 1895 to a family of artists and art historians, he first became director of a museum in Zwickau in 1925, where he was a cheerleader for contemporary art. In 1933, the year after Cornelius was born, Hildebrand was forced to resign as managing director of the Hamburg Art Association by the Nazis because he’d exhibited and promoted “degenerate” art. But his expertise in the field also made him invaluable to the regime as a dealer, and having been cut off from his career in museums, Gurlitt saw a business opportunity. He presumably reasoned that his relationship with the Nazis protected his family, given his Jewish grandmother, while also salvaging the works he sold from destruction. Meanwhile, he profited immensely from it.

“We like our history to be black and white,” Nina Zimmer told me. “The bad guys and the good guys. Hildebrand Gurlitt, of course he’s bad, he’s someone who put himself at the service of the Nazis. But he was also a progressive young museum director who acquired modern art for his community, who hoped to promote it. It’s interesting to see how he slowly changed sides, convincing himself that he was doing something for modern art and artists, which he then betrayed.”

After the war, Gurlitt was placed under house arrest and interrogated: He played up his Jewish origins, lied about his income and property, and maintained that all his business records had been destroyed during the war. He was eventually released and continued selling art until 1956, when he died in a car crash. But the property he left his family seems to have troubled his children more than it weighed on him. Renate Gurlitt, his daughter, sent a letter to her brother Cornelius in 1964. “I sometimes think, his most personal and most valuable legacy has turned into the darkest burden,” she wrote. “What we have is locked away in the graphics cabinet or kept behind pinned-up curtains … I tremble with fear every time I even think about it.”

In April 2014, Cornelius Gurlitt came to an agreement with the Bavarian government. The works that had been taken from him, the seizure of which was legally in dispute, would be returned if he cooperated with an investigation into their provenance. Any items that were found to have been looted would be restituted. But the following month, Gurlitt died, and in his will he left the entirety of his collection to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland. His decision left many baffled, including museum administrators in Bern, who had to decide what to do with such a loaded bequest. Gurlitt’s cousin Uta Werner then challenged Gurlitt’s will in November 2014, declaring her doubts that Gurlitt had been of sound mind when he made his endowment.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern came to an agreement with Germany—it would accept into its collection only artworks that were definitively not looted. “We accepted it,” Marcel Brulhart, the vice president of the museum’s foundation, said in a press conference in 2017, “because we wanted to face the responsibility.” Meanwhile, the German government had established a taskforce to look into the origins of the 1,566 artworks found at different locations in Gurlitt’s possession. The first taskforce wrapped up its efforts at the end of 2015, announcing that after two years and nearly $2.5 million, they had identified the provenance of just 11 of the works in the Gurlitt Dossier (five of which were categorized as looted), drawing criticism for the effort’s high cost and limited results. Another taskforce was then established, the Gurlitt Provenance Research Project, whose initial findings were announced at press conferences in Switzerland and Germany in November 2017.

Andrea Baresel-Brand, the director of the provenance investigation, revealed that ultimately out of 1,039 works being researched there were 12 in the Gurlitt Dossier that were proven or highly likely to have been looted. These included Seated Woman, Rosenberg’s missing Matisse, and a painting by Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach, which had been forcibly sold to the Nazis by the Jewish art collector David Friedmann. Of the works investigated, 297 were tentatively classified as “degenerate,” seized by the Nazis from museums or from private owners. More than 100 were simply unclassifiable—they had gaps in their provenance that meant they couldn’t be cleared, but neither could they be deemed suspicious. It’s frustrating, Baresel-Brand told me. “As a scientist, you always expect that you will have a result, a reliable result. And of course we want to clear the works, to fill in the provenance … In the beginning, when the [Gurlitt] art trove was discovered, everybody expected to have everything uncovered after a few weeks. And of course, this wasn’t realistic.”

The murkiness surrounding the Gurlitt artworks speaks to the confusion that still surrounds the subject of Nazi-looted art. The works that can successfully be restituted represent a fraction of the art that was stolen and misappropriated; and even when museum directors and researchers try to establish the origins of items in their collections, they’re challenged by people who consider it a waste of public money, or an unnecessary dive into history that would be better forgotten. At the November press conference at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, where items from the Gurlitt Dossier went on public display for the first time, a member of the public asked Nina Zimmer, the museum’s director, if she wasn’t worried about waking sleeping dogs, or uncovering unpleasant surprises. “I’m very happy about every sleeping dog that we can wake,” Zimmer replied, firmly.

In that sense, the two exhibitions of works from the Gurlitt Dossier in Bern and Bonn feel deliberately provocative, challenging citizens in Switzerland and Germany to confront a painful chapter of the past rather than trying to bury it. In Bern, Zimmer has focused on the subject of “degenerate art,” and how Hitler’s distaste for it led to the persecution and ruination of a number of artists. In Bonn, an exhibition co-curated by Rein Wolfs and Agnieszka Lulinska explores the larger topic of Nazi art theft and its consequences, as well as considering how Hildebrand Gurlitt became one of the primary dealers for the Nazi regime. “We wanted to realize as much transparency as possible,” Wolfs told me. “We’re dealing with black pages in European history, but we’re also 70, 80 years away from this period, and a lot of eyewitnesses aren’t around anymore. So it’s very important now that we try and do something while we can.”

In the wake of the Gurlitt discovery, other museums are beginning to highlight suspicious works in their own collections. In Paris, a new gallery at the Louvre contains 31 paintings looted by the Nazis then returned to France. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is hiring a new provenance and spoliation curator to help train other staff in provenance research. In September 2017, at a conference in London titled “70 Years and Counting: Europe’s Final Opportunity?,” restitution experts discussed ways to better enable the return of the estimated 100,000 artworks that are still unaccounted for in public and private collections.

What’s further helping restitution efforts in the 21st century, Zimmer told me, is that so many archives now are digitized. “That allows us,” she said, “to work in networks over countries, and across specializations, and to achieve results that were much harder to realize only five years ago.” O’Donnell agrees that the current moment is vitally important. “There is urgency, because we are at the outer limits of surviving people who remember what happened to the collections,” he said. “I don’t think time is running out on the issue, but I do think, like with a lot of questions about the Holocaust, the next 10 years are very important.”

Whether restitution efforts can make significant progress will depend on whether museums are willing to give up key items in their collections to right historic wrongs, and whether members of the public are willing to see public funds invested in these efforts, and to confront events that many people would rather move on from. What’s clear from previous cases, though, is that there’s real value in facing the past rather than turning away from it.

Andrea Baresel-Brand talks about a case she worked on years ago, where a small museum in Germany made attempts of its own volition to return items in its collection that were taken from a Jewish family. In that instance, she said, the museum located the family’s children, who had been rescued by Kindertransport and taken to Britain. They agreed to come to Germany for the first time since the war to accept the items in a ceremony. “They were moved, and they were open,” she said. “They were grateful. They were critical. And when you heard the speeches, everyone was crying. Me too. And after a while, the family decided to give the objects back to the museum. It wasn’t a high-priced item, it wasn’t a Monet, or whatever. And it was a small museum, and here were people that were good, were honest. They wanted to do the right thing.”
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