Lost 'Nazi art' shows aim to reunite masterpieces with true owners

From BBC - November 3, 2017

It's five years since authorities in Germany uncovered around 1500 works of art held by Cornelius Gurlitt, then aged 79.He'd inherited the work - by artists ranging from Old Masters to Picasso - from his father, an art-dealer who worked with the Nazis to acquire valuable artworks from Jewish families.Now exhibitions in Germany and in Switzerland are putting highlights on display, in the hope of alerting descendants who may be the rightful owners.

Gurlitt suddenly came to public notice in 2013, the German authorities had already known for a year that an astounding hoard of artwork had been found at his addresses in Munich and in Salzburg.The artists ranged from Picasso to Durer and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Initially, officials tried to keep the discovery secret.After all, Gurlitt appeared to have broken no laws.But a news magazine got hold of the story.

The collection had been inherited from Gurlitt's father Hildebrand, a major art dealer who died in 1956. Hildebrand served Germany's Nazi leadership in three ways: he helped acquire important works from Jewish families at prices well below their true value; he sold examples of so-called "degenerate art" abroad; he was involved in assembling pieces for the grand "Fuhrer Museum" planned for Linz in Austria.

The works of art are often described as having been looted from Jewish families.But Reim Wolfs, director of the Federal Art Gallery in Bonn, says images of Nazi stormtroopers violently pulling paintings from walls are misleading.

"This was a long bureaucratic process forcing Jewish owners to sell artwork they owned.For some it became a sort of Departure Tax which meant they were permitted to leave the country for South America or wherever.Eighty years later the question is which parts of the Gurlitt hoard came from that source?It's a massively complex issue."

The Bonn exhibition is one of two running in parallel. The gallery in Bonn is showing 250 pictures which throw light on the insidious process of acquiring the art and on the stories of the rightful owners, many of whom perished in the Holocaust.

The other exhibition is in Bern in Switzerland.It focuses on the issue of "enterartete Kunst", or degenerate art, which the Nazis wanted to wipe from German culture.

Wolfs says that programme did not, as people sometimes imagine, target only Jewish artists."The Nazis wanted to remove all Modernist works from public galleries and museums: they held Modernism to be against German values. It was a ruthless attempt to eradicate what they mistrusted and hated and there's an obvious parallel with the Holocaust."

No one claims all 1500 works of art were acquired from Jewish families forced into selling: Hildebrand Gurlitt was an active art dealer for many decades. Walking around the exhibition in Bonn with Wolfs the complexity of discovering the provenance (ownership history) of each piece is clear.

"For instance we have a wonderful Monet painting of Waterloo Bridge in London, done in 1903.We have no direct indication it was ever a looted artwork.But we also have to be absolutely thorough and there is a weird detail: we know the mother of Hildebrand Gurlitt in 1938 wrote a note confirming that years before she had given him the Monet as a present for his wedding.But why did the mother even need to affirm that fact? - it seems odd and we are still investigating.


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