Phantom Collector The Mystery of the Munich Nazi Art Trove
Part 3: Hildebrand Gurlitt: Savior or Plunderer?
Gurlitt toured the territories occupied by Nazi Germany like a kind of traveling salesman. In France he acquired 19th-century paintings for German cigarette manufacturer Philipp F. Reemtsma. He attended auctions that sold off looted art from museums and stolen art that authorities had seized from Jewish owners. Is it possible that he knew nothing of the origins of this artwork?
In the spring of 1945, part of Gurlitt's collection was in Dresden; the family was living at Kaitzerstrasse 26 at the time. During the Allied air raids on the night of Feb. 13-14, the building was nearly completely destroyed, but Gurlitt was apparently able to save most of his art trove. In mid-March 1945, as he later wrote in a sworn statement, he was able to salvage the remainder of his "safeguarded paintings" and pack them in "roughly 25 crates," along with numerous boxes with hundreds of drawings and prints.
He then transported the collection in a "truck with a trailer" to Aschbach in the southern German state of Bavaria, where he said he stored it in a castle that was soon captured by advancing US troops. "All crates and boxes," said Gurlitt, "were carefully checked by American commissions on a number of occasions." Many of the works were confiscated and brought to the central collecting point in Wiesbaden, he noted.
House Arrest and Denazification
After the war, Hildebrand Gurlitt was placed under house arrest. He was not aware of any wrongdoing. In November 1946, he wrote to a friend: "Having been forced to change my profession, and then obstinately achieving hard-earned success as a dealer, although I essentially had no disposition as a dealer, and having lived all those years in fear and anxiety of denunciations, forced labor and crossbreed battalions -- really, I now hardly have the strength to protest."
Gurlitt rated himself as "unbelastet," meaning that he had never been a Nazi sympathizer. He said that he became an art dealer because he lost his job as a museum curator in 1933 and forfeited his pension rights, "because of my commitment to so-called degenerate art," as he put it. Furthermore: "My anti-fascist convictions are well-known. According to the Nuremberg laws, I was a second-degree crossbreed (Mischling)."
American officials were skeptical, and described Gurlitt as withdrawn and nervous. They thought his behavior was suspicious, and asked him why he had brought crates with the stamp of the Dresden state art collections to western Germany, along with alleged gold bars. He remained evasive.
At the same time, he agreed to give back a number of works in his possession that he had acquired in France. He also compiled a comprehensive list of the paintings that he had purchased in France during the war, which included Rodins, Chardins and Rembrandts.
Gurlitt submitted to the authorities a number of character references that he hoped would clear him of any suspicion of being a collaborator. For instance, he had Hamburg lawyer Walter Clemens confirm that he had "always been an unequivocal opponent of Nazism." Clemens went on to say that Gurlitt's Hamburg art gallery was "a safe haven for free art" and a "center for anti-Nazi activities."
A Double Life
His denazification file also includes a letter from Max Beckman. On Aug. 6, 1946, the German Expressionist artist wrote from Amsterdam: "Dear Herr Hildebrand Gurlitt ... you were actually the last individual in Nazi Germany who, at great personal risk, showed my final exhibition in Hamburg, and you braved dangers to visit me during the war, purchased paintings from me and, at the same time, made disparaging remarks about the regime." The letter ends with: "Take care. Yours truly, (signed) Beckmann."
One of the art dealer's secretaries, Maja Gotthelf, also attested to Gurlitt's character. She was able to confirm that she never signed Gurlitt's letters with "Heil Hitler" and that, "despite his high-profile position," he had "helped the Jews and other politically persecuted individuals in a self-sacrificing manner." Gurlitt's daughter Benita, an art historian who was born in 1935 and died last year, wrote in October 2002 to a colleague in Hamburg: "I know when he did business in the Third Reich he always had an eye for saving banned art and safeguarding it in a protected location."
She went on to speculate: "Perhaps he sometimes even enjoyed outwitting the hated Nazis in this dangerous and risky 'game' for a 'Jewish crossbreed.'"
His true convictions, however, were of a different nature.
The fact of the matter is that Hildebrand Gurlitt led two lives, as shown by many file documents. The Hamburg Police Department wrote in 1947 that Gurlitt allegedly "profited enormously" from the period of the Third Reich. "Aside from an exaggerated sense of business acumen, he reportedly took advantage of the predicament of the Jews and associated with men from the counterintelligence service."
This was based on testimony by Gurlitt's former secretary Ingeborg Hertmann. She noticed that Gurlitt "maintained regular business and personal contacts with the Propaganda Ministry, Dr. (Rolf) Hetsch (the Propaganda Ministry's consultant for the visual arts), ... (Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert) Speer and (Propaganda Minister Joseph) Goebbels."
In the years 1942 and 1943, she said that he "only worked for the Führer." She went on to say that at the Hamburg Kunsthalle -- an art museum in the city -- he purchased paintings by Liebermann "at cheap prices that were incomprehensible to me and sold them for astronomical amounts of money." The secretary added: "When the Jews were deported to the Lodz ghetto, they entrusted Gurlitt with all of their paintings to be sold. After a while, these people wrote letters, asking him to send money because they were starving. Gurlitt then told me in a calm and indifferent manner to send 10 Reichsmarks to the Jew."
Nevertheless, the Americans were generous. Gurlitt was allowed to keep the works of art that he had declared his private property at the collecting point of the US administration in Wiesbaden. In December 1950, the US high commissioner approved the return of 134 paintings and drawings from the "Gurlitt collection." In addition to the artwork, there were Nepalese antiquities and Meissen porcelain. For two additional works of art, the art dealer produced a certificate from a Swiss friend who attested that he gave Gurlitt a Picasso and a Chagall in Switzerland "around 1943." He subsequently received these works as well. A photo of the Chagall, an "allegory with three moons," was shown last week at a press conference.
In Gurlitt's later years, before he died in a car crash in 1956, he served as the director of the Düsseldorf Kunstverein from 1948. He still had an enormous amount of energy, and he transformed this small art association into a captivating institution, which of course showed modern art. He also continued to deal in artwork. Indeed, it's likely that after 1945 Gurlitt added a number of works to the collection that was found at the home of his son Cornelius in Munich.
The paintings returned by the Americans also included Max Lieberman's "Two Riders on the Beach," which had somehow made its way from David Friedmann's conservatory in Breslau to Gurlitt's crates of artwork in Dresden.
Reckoning and Recrimination
The shadow of the dark events of the 20th century hung over the press conference last Tuesday in Augsburg, which became necessary in the wake of stunning revelations last Monday by the German newsmagazine Focus. Yet the press conference raised more questions than it answered: an enormous art trove of unknown provenance, a police raid on a Munich apartment in February 2012, the confiscation of all the artworks and the bewildering legal arguments for this action, the long silence surrounding the spectacular discovery; the ongoing reticence to divulge what else has been discovered aside from the 11 revealed exhibits, and, finally, the apparent disinterest in Gurlitt, the owner of the collection and alleged criminal offender. None of this was explained.
Instead, investigators, public prosecutors and art historians presented themselves as the serendipitous saviors of a treasure, but they apparently didn't quite know what to do next. It almost seemed like a desperate and belated attempt to come to terms with everything the Nazis had done to artists, the art world and the owners of these works.
Yet it is precisely these individuals who are primarily outraged that they have only now heard of this find -- and continue to be denied any further information. It was only after the US exerted pressure that the German government first urged the investigators last Thursday to release a complete list of the works of art as soon as possible.
It must have dawned on investigators early on that they were overwhelmed by the case. Are the paintings genuine? Where did they come from? In the spring of 2012, customs investigators approached Germany's Finance Ministry, but ministry officials apparently underestimated the political sensitivity of the case. They then asked the commissioner for cultural and media affairs (BKM) at the Chancellery for help. His experts in the restitution of artwork recommended a Berlin art historian: Meike Hoffmann, 51, from the "Degenerate Art" Research Center at the Free University of Berlin.