During World War II, the Nazis confiscated, appropriated and lost 20th century European masterpieces. In uncharacteristically incomplete records, these so-called “Degenerate,” or “Entartete,” artworks were lost to history. However, this weekend, German customs announced just under 1,500 paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, as well as figures of the Entartete Kunst movement, Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde, were discovered in the Munich home of 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt.
Gurlitt’s father was Hildebrand Gurlitt, a German art dealer prevalent during the rise of Nazism and the confiscation of counter-normative artworks. The Guardian reports that Hildebrand was half-Jewish, and had held a director position in Germany until he was forced to step down when the Nazis took power. As a consolatory agreement, he was permitted to sell the stolen works on behalf of Germany abroad. In so doing, Hildebrand apparently managed to hold onto many masterpieces himself, lying to authorities that his own collection was destroyed by wartime bombings.
Cornelius secretly maintained his father’s collection for decades, selling very rarely and extremely discreetly. An exceptionally quiet man, Cornelius lived without a legal bank account, documentation or any career. He was finally discovered after he cashed a check on his way back from Switzerland in 2010. By 2011, police were led to the hundreds of works stored haphazardly beside canned and boxed foods. In a museum, the works would be under constant surveillance in a temperature-sensitive room. They are currently stored in a Munich customs building under the care of Berlin academic Meike Hoffmann. The entire collection is estimated to be worth 1.3 billion USD.
It is noteworthy that the finding was only announced this week, even as authorities have known about the collection for two years. The values and location have been kept under wraps because the legal issues associated with this discovery are extensive. Many of the works were taken from or abandoned by persecuted Jewish families, so remaining descendants can now stake claim.
In one case, for example, French politico and economist Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s ex-wife, Anne Sinclair, is already involved. A Matisse painting found in the Gurlitt basement once belonged to her grandfather, art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Sinclair and her cousin have long been seeking retribution.
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An ultimately precedential case arose in 1999 regarding Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (1907) along with four other paintings by the artist. Adele Bloch-Bauers’s descendant Maria V. Altmann (nee Bauer) discovered that the painting was intended for the state museum by her family, but instead was confiscated and held by the Austrian government. A Holocaust survivor and American citizen since 1945, Altmann launched a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure the painting was returned to her family. The collection of five works was subsequently sold to the Neue Galerie, a haven for Austrian and German art in New York.
The Neue Galerie plans to showcase a March 2013 opening of “Entartete Kunst.” Will it feature some of these newly publicized works from the Gurlitt collection?