20 January 2015

Post-Gurlitt stress disorder

by Marc Masurovsky

Hildebrand Gurlitt
Hildebrand Gurlitt
Cornelius Gurlitt
Now that Cornelius Gurlitt, reclusive heir to the art collection of his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956), international art dealer, museum director and art historian, is the late Cornelius Gurlitt (1932-2014) the world has moved on… sort of.

We won’t rehash the Gurlitt story here. Suffice it to say that Cornelius Gurlitt, while he was alive, had not worked much for most of his adult life, or at least since the premature death of his father in 1956. He had lived rather well from the proceeds of sales of works of art which constituted a large part of his inheritance.

Caught by Bavarian customs and fiscal authorities over alleged improprieties in 2011, Cornelius’s art collection came to the light of day not because of the Germans’ desire to tell all about their find of a ‘treasure’ in Cornelius’ Munich apartment, but as a result of an old-fashioned news leak perpetrated by Focus magazine in early November 2013, one year after law enforcement executed a search warrant in February 2012.

Munich-Schwabing apartment

Then all (media) hell broke loose accompanied by rapid expressions of ire and shock in Germany and abroad at the revelation of the existence of such a trove of potentially looted material dating back to the Nazi years. A great many people who have studied and worked on matters pertaining to reparations and restitution of stolen assets resulting from wholesale plunder during the Third Reich, the Holocaust and World War II felt outrage and shock at the German government’s apparent dismal and lame attempt to withhold and conceal information about Cornelius Gurlitt and his art collection.

Questions followed themselves in rapid fire about the where, when, why, what, and how of the collection—what did it comprise? Who are the claimants? Will looted items be returned? How much is the collection worth? Are there others? The answers were not readily forthcoming and that only made matters worse.

In rapid succession:

The collection was evaluated at a staggering 1 billion euros. How? No one knows.

A task force (The "Schwabing Trove" Task force) saw the light of day to “manage the crisis” and implement a plan to shed light on the origins of many of the objects found in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt.
Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, Task Force chief

Funds (not much!) were made available for such an effort.

An international process was set in motion, albeit clumsy and rife with intrigue as strange as that may sound, to appoint specialists and well-connected people onto the Task Force.

Meanwhile, the Bavarian prosecutor in charge of the fiscal inquiry into Cornelius Gurlitt was threatening to return the art to Cornelius because, after all, under German law he was its rightful owner.

A year passed…

Several works (Henri Matisse, Max Liebermann, Otto Dix) were identified as being the stolen property of a number of plundered families.

Then came the arguments about how to file claims and recover the items in the context of this fiscal inquest overlain with the complexities of cultural plunder and its postwar aftermath.

Cornelius Gurlitt, overwhelmed by the sudden publicity and notoriety that he had acquired, he who had wanted to live and die under the radar, died well above the radar. No one shed a tear for him, the seeming victim of his late father’s misdeeds. Or so it would appear….

Shortly before his death, two things happened: a trove of paintings and works on paper was discovered in a house that he had owned, near Salzburg,
Aigen-Salzburg house

and it was revealed by the lawyers handling his estate that the happy recipient of his collection, in its totality, would be the Kunstmuseum of Bern.

Shock, dismay, puzzlement, laughter, wonderment.

In the midst of all this mania surrounding a fairly important art collection amassed by Hildebrand Gurlitt, a well-known art dealer who had connived with the Nazis, the very people who had harassed him, many important points have still not been addressed to this day:

Kunstmuseum Bern
How many objects did Hildebrand Gurlitt own at the time of his untimely death resulting from a fatal auto accident?

How many objects did Cornelius Gurlitt inherit from his late father?

How many objects did Renate, Cornelius’ sister (born in 1935) inherit from her late father?

Where were they located?

How many caches were there?

In how many localities and countries?

Was there a will?

Was there a detailed inventory attached to the will?

Did anyone bother to look at either or both?

How many dealers, collectors, museums, and auction houses did Hildebrand Gurlitt do business with?

How many dealers, collectors, museums, and auction houses did Cornelius Gurlitt do business with?

How many art objects did Hildebrand and Cornelius sell with dubious provenances attesting to a possibility of looting and misappropriation during the Third Reich?

Who bought them? Where are they now?

How many objects did Cornelius Gurlitt sell? To whom? Where? When? For how much? What is the relationship between the Gurlitt family and the Kunstmuseum Bern? Since when does it exist? Did Hildebrand and Cornelius Gurlitt sell and/or donate items to the Kunstmuseum Bern? If so, when? What? for how much? how are they described? are there files at the Bern Museum that can be consulted regarding these transactions if they occurred?

What, if any, was the role of the Kornfeld interests in Bern in brokering the bequest of the Cornelius Gurlitt collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern?

Did other museums receive gifts from Hildebrand and/or Cornelius in Switzerland and elsewhere?
Galerie Kornfeld, Bern

So many questions, so few answers… A very stressful state of affairs that belies the inability of those who profess to have an interest in the fate of the Gurlitt collection to come to grips with its historical reality in full and open daylight for all to see and learn from. The same could be said about any collection which originated in the racial, political and religious mickey mouse games played by art dealers and museum officials, auctioneers and collectors, during those fateful genocidal years and thereafter.

A missed opportunity if there ever was one.