Unravelling the Third Reich art heist
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 June 2018)

The larcenous greed for culture of Hitler and other Nazis disrupted the post-war European art world of the late 1940s and led to renowned paintings turning up all over the world, far distant from their rightful owners. The Nazis brutally seized much of what they wanted from Jews or paid absurdly low prices to those who were desperate for cash to get them out of Germany.

Throughout history, conquerors have stolen art from the conquered, as Napoleon famously did, but the Nazis made it an everyday part of life, brazenly setting up official commissions to administer their large-scale looting, and when necessary, seizing paintings from museums. Newspapers carried stories of their crimes for years after the end of the war. The thefts took a fictional form in an early episode of the TV show West Wing when a Jewish tourist erupted into hysteria at the sight of a landscape on a White House wall, a picture she knew from childhood and hadn't seen since the day Nazi soldiers took her whole family away to a death camp.

A specific crime like that seldom makes the news these days, but a story now unfolding in Munich recalls the same dreadful history. Art experts are studying 1,566 works of art found in a single apartment, the home of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a famous art dealer and museum director, whose customers included Hitler. His personal collection included Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Chagall, Durer, and many lesser-known artists. He died in 1956.

His son, Cornelius Gurlitt, remained silent about this trove, quietly selling items from the holdings. The revenue attracted Bavarian tax collectors, who in 2012 discovered that the family apartment was stuffed with art in every corner. Since then, a government-appointed task force of experts has been trying to find out who properly owns the work.

They recently published a large-format, precisely detailed book, Gurlitt: Status Report, which makes it clear that they have made only a little progress. When one piece has been passed from hand to hand for 60 or more years, untangling its history can be a major research problem. The task force has managed to place only a few works with original owners or their heirs. For instance, a Matisse went to the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg, a legendary Paris art dealer, from whom the Nazis confiscated it around 1941. At their present rate, the task force's work will extend well into the future.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was nobody's idea of a Nazi. Twice he was dismissed from a museum job because he was committed to promoting modern artists, the kind of "decadent" painters Nazis despised. On one occasion he caused a scandal because he refused to raise a swastika on a flag pole outside his museum.

But the Nazis were interested in him as an art expert, and he had a reason to fear them. One of his grandmothers was a Jew and in the 1930s (when the Nazis were in power but were not yet mass murderers) he decided he was so vulnerable that he had to negotiate with them. He may have believed that if he co-operated in their wholesale expropriations they would ignore his grandmother and he would not be frozen out of the economy. That turned out to be an effective survival strategy: he outlived Hitler and his whole noxious Third Reich, by 11 years.

His business survived, too. While helping Hitler buy paintings, and to collect and organize exhibits of "depraved" art, he had to vilify many of the artists he had once praised. He was assigned to sell bad examples of depravity in Switzerland and elsewhere, contributing the proceeds to the Nazi treasury. He also functioned as a private dealer and made a personal fortune (as Gurlitt: Status Report declares). He ended up with his own stash, which he saw as his private collection.

After his death, Hildebrand's heirs found his much-loved collection a painful encumbrance. In 1964, his daughter Renate wrote to her brother, Cornelius: "I sometimes think his personal and most valuable legacy has turned into the darkest burden. I tremble with fear every time I even think of it. What we have is locked away in the graphics cabinet or kept behind pinned-up curtains -- no one sees it, no one enjoys it." When she thought about it she dwelt on tax inspections and family arguments, not "a living memento and symbol of Daddy's life work, or how proud he was of it."

Strange that after all those years of duplicity, he could convince his daughter that he remained proud of his life work. Everyone who writes about him says he was an enormously complicated man.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image