22 June 2011

How to profit from State-sanctioned plunder: the Entartete Kunst case

The Nazi government enacted on May 31, 1938, the ”Act on Confiscations of Degenerate Art“ (“Gesetz über Einziehung von Erzeugnissen entarteter Kunst“) in order to legitimize its domestic purge of all works of art not deemed suitable in the New National Socialist Aryan Germany. By 1942, according to an inventory compiled by the Reich Ministry for Cultural Enlightenment and Religion (Joseph Goebbels' purview) at least 16,000 so-called “degenerate”works of art were accounted for in museums and cultural institutions controlled by the Nazi government.

The Nazi government selected a handful of art dealers—Ferdinand Möller, Bernhard Böhmer, Karl Buchholz and Hildebrand Gurlitt—to do their bidding and get rid of these works on the art market—read, the international art market—in order to raise cash and cleanse the German cultural landscape once and for all.

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
Source: Wikipedia
Institutions like the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid have touted these gentlemen as “saviors” of Germany’s modernist art treasures, probably because the Museum owns a number of German Expressionist works that were "saved" by Gurlitt and Buchholz. Interesting. A rare instance where thieves and their acolytes are treated as heroes. Obviously, there’s room for everyone in the pantheon of Aat.

As one can readily imagine, the Nazi-ordered global recycling of "degenerate" art was the biggest cultural fire sale orchestrated by any standing government, legitimate or other, for which there could only be one word—opportunity! And, indeed, opportunity struck high throughout the ensuing decades, even after the fall of the Third Reich in early May 1945.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Source: The Art Story
Fast forward to 1964—an unusual year in the international auction market because a large number of these ‘degenerate’ works are put up for sale and snatched up by private collectors and museums, including American institutions. This is not to say that American museums did not seize earlier opportunities to absorb at prices not even fit for a flea market, priceless works of art by 19th and 20th century masters. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) under the enlightened leadership of Alfred Barr cashed in on various spectacular sales of ‘degenerate’ works such as the 1939 Lucerne, Switzerland, sale at Theodore Fischer’s gallery, and many subsequent transactions through third parties which allowed Barr to absorb an untold number of those works into the collections of MOMA.

In 1964, two works by Wassily Kandinsky come up for sale at Sotheby’s London—“Zweierlei Rot” which Dr. Gurlitt had ‘acquired’ for not even 100 dollars and “Ruhe” which was handled by Moeller. Both works hailed from the Berlin Nationalgalerie. “Zweierlei Rot” ended up in a private collection, giving the previous owner a handsome profit, while “Ruhe” was picked up by the Guggenheim Foundation together with dozens of other works by Kandinsky, an event that earned a small outcry in the German-language press.

While the Allied powers had denounced all transactions and laws entered into and decreed by the Nazi government between 1933 and 1945 to be null and void, thus illegal, the Allied Control Council (ACC) which ruled over the zones of occupation in Germany decreed by 1948 that the purging of German State cultural institutions had constitued a legitimate State-sanctioned act. One has to scratch one’s head in wonder at this ruling, justified by the Council by the fact that the Nazi government had not engaged in an overt act of discriminatory policy. Or could it be that, in order to avoid a wholesale purge and overhaul of the art market, it was best to let bygones be bygones? After all, if the ACC had declared the Nazi war against “degenerate” art to be illegal and consistent with its racial, anti-Semitic, xenophobic ideology, the acquisition of more than 16,000 works of art by institutions and individuals worldwide would have been subject to a massive “recall” and German state institutions placed in the awkward position of having to reclaim what they had cleansed, willingly or unwillingly.

The winners? 

According to museums and art world denizens, the general public is the winner. In the view of those who strive for ethical behavior in the global art market, there can be only one winner―the art market.