Phantom Collector: The Mystery of the Munich Nazi Art Trove
The world has been captivated by the discovery of more than 1,400 works of art in a Munich apartment, among them many lost masterpieces stolen by the Nazis. The mystery surrounding the paintings reveals much about the great tragedies of the 20th century -- and Germany's attempt to grapple with its past.
Two men are on horseback, it's summer, the colors are radiant, the riders are deep in conversation, and one of the horses prances in the surf. It's a brief moment on a beach in Holland - but it is also a moment for eternity.
Max Liebermann's painting, "Two Riders on the Beach," is an Impressionist masterpiece. He painted it in 1901, and a Jewish sugar refiner from Breslau in Lower Silesia, now the Polish city of Wroclaw, owned it for more than 30 years -- until the Nazis confiscated the work. After that, it disappeared.
Two attorneys in Berlin have been searching for the Liebermann for the last five years. Lothar Fremy and Jörg Rosbach specialize in restitution cases. In the postwar period, they helped clients assert claims for expropriated property in eastern Germany. The lawful heirs of the Liebermann paintings are brothers, 88 and 92, who live in London and New York, respectively. The sugar refiner from Breslau was their great uncle. The painting is probably worth about 1 million ($1.34 million) today.
When Fremy and Rosbach switched on the television last Tuesday, they weren't expecting much. The public prosecutor's office in the Bavarian city of Augsburg was giving a press conference on a mysterious Munich art find, and it was being broadcast live. Yet what they saw on TV was the announcement of the largest discovery of lost art from the Nazi period since World War II. Eleven of the 1,406 art works that had been seized in Munich a year and a half ago were presented in the press conference. The Liebermann was one of the paintings.
A Maddening Revelation
Fremy says that he cringed when he saw the press conference. Rosbach says that be became enraged. There had always been strong indications that the Gurlitt family had once owned the painting, and now it had been discovered among the other works in an apartment in Munich's Schwabing neighborhood. Public prosecutors, customs investigators and an art historian appeared in the broadcast. Both they and the German government had long known where the painting was located.
Rosbach called one of the heirs in New York after the press conference. He couldn't tell him much more than the fact that the painting had turned up, but that they would have to be patient. The attorneys immediately wrote to the public prosecutor's office in Augsburg, only to learn that no further information would be provided in the near future. All of this could take years, but the heirs, being 88 and 92, don't have much time left.
The next day, David Toren, one of the two heirs, called the attorneys in Berlin once again. "Our Liebermann," Toren said, "was even shown in the New York Times. It used to hang in Uncle David's house, in the room in front of the winter garden."
"Saved" was the word art historian Meike Hoffmann used on that morning in Augsburg, as she projected grainy, faded images of great masterworks onto the wall, as if she were giving a university seminar with a projector that had already seen its best days.
Historic Police Raid
In February 2012, German authorities raided the apartment of 75-year-old collector Cornelius Gurlitt and seized 1,406 works of art, a spectacular trove with a value that has yet to be estimated. It includes works by Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Picasso and Henri Matisse, among others. There were also many prints and graphic works, which Gurlitt had kept in a cabinet.
At the press conference, it was not clear what exactly the collector was being accused of. There is talk of tax evasion and embezzlement, but the legal framework for the authorities' confiscation of the collection seems murky at best.
Gurlitt has been missing since the raid on his apartment. He inherited the massive, mysterious collection from his father, Hildebrand, an art historian, museum director and art dealer born in 1895. He was one of the men who helped establish modern art in Germany and who collaborated with the Nazis after 1933.
Cornelius was 23 when his father died in 1956. Relatives say the younger Gurlitt has never held a real job. He is a loner, they say, a man with no women in his life, who seeks beauty in art and avoids people. For a time, his only contact with his sister Benita, who died in 2012, was through letters.
Members of the family knew about the pictures he owned, but they saw nothing unusual about the son of a gallery owner inheriting artworks. They saw him occasionally, but not for many years. A relative says that the collection was Cornelius Gurlitt's lifeblood. "What that little man from Schwabing had in his apartment shouldn't go to any museum in the world," the relative explains. They speak of him as if he were a phantom, someone taking revenge on mankind who doesn't want to share his treasures with others -- a man whose spectacular inheritance was both a blessing and a curse.
At the Augsburg press conference, too, Gurlitt remained a phantom. One of the officials said he wasn't interested in the old man's whereabouts. At times, it almost seems as if the officials would prefer to see Gurlitt disappear completely. That would make things a lot simpler.
Because it is a complicated story, over which hang the shadows of a horrific century in Germany.
Bright Dawn of a Dark Era
The story begins in 1901, in Max Liebermann's studio on Pariser Platz in Berlin. Liebermann, 54 at the time, was from a wealthy Jewish merchant family that owned one of the two palaces adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate. He painted "Two Riders on the Beach" in a room under a glazed roof, which he had had remodeled only two years earlier.
Liebermann was a late 19th-century painter, a true innovator and one of the most important German Impressionists, revered by art lovers of the urban upper middle class, who loved the light, the vibrant atmosphere and the open air in his paintings. When the painting was exhibited in Berlin for the first time, a critic praised the "delicate silhouettes" and nervous movements of the horses. But the Kaiser disliked Liebermann's attitude and his preference for the great Impressionists, like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas -- too French, too modern.
In 1927, long after Kaiser Wilhelm II had been driven out, Liebermann became an honorary citizen of Berlin. He had co-founded the Berlin Secession art association and held many public offices. When a torchlight procession passed his house on the day of the Nazi takeover in 1933, Liebermann famously said: "I cannot eat as much as I would like to vomit." When the Nazis began burning books in Berlin a few months later, he resigned from all of his offices, including the post of honorary president of the Academy of the Arts. In a press release of sorts, he declared: "It is my conviction that art has nothing to do with politics or dissent."
Two years later, Liebermann died at the age of 88. His daughter Käthe was able to emigrate to the United States in 1938. His widow Martha committed suicide in 1943 with an overdose of sleeping pills, when she learned that she was to be deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
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