Gurlitt trove eludes restitution efforts owing to unresolved provenance questions

Posted on: July 1, 2020 by

The full story of the billion-dollar art collection gathered by Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt during World War II may never be told. After years spent trying to determine the collection’s history, the prior owners of a large majority of those works remain unknown. This is a story we have followed with interest throughout its history (see all our previous posts here).

Since its discovery in 2012, 14 looted artworks from the trove’s circa 1,500 have been restituted to Holocaust victims’ heirs. While several hundred works were deemed ‘harmless’, meaning not looted during Hitler’s art theft frenzy, over 1,000 artworks simply had too many historical gaps in their provenance. Evidence of prior ownership for the majority of Gurlitt’s trove is nearly – if not completely – lost.

How the Gurlitt collection came to be

Originally working in museums, Hildebrand Gurlitt exhibited controversial artists such as the Die Brücke German Expressionists. After his taste in art caused employment difficulties, Gurlitt became an art dealer – a “missionary for the avant-garde” – under the safety of his wife’s Aryan name, thereby detracting attention from his quarter-Jewish lineage.

By the late 1930s, Gurlitt was among the Nazi elite, one of a handful of dealers licensed to liquidate ‘degenerate’ art purged from museums and acquired from private collectors.[1] This enabled Gurlitt to feed his appetite for ‘non-Aryan’ art[2] and even to re-acquire a work previously confiscated from him – “Two Nudes on a Bed” (1907-08) by Die Brücke co-founder Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

As the Third Reich fell, Gurlitt retained his collection by utilizing a honed Nazi skill – turning the truth on its head. When arrested and questioned by the U.S. Army about his art holdings, he falsely claimed that all was lost in the 1945 firebombing of Dresden.[3] Hildebrand was eventually released and, likely due in some part to his Jewish descent, was actually found to have been the subject of Nazi crimes.[4]

Thomas Couture’s ‘Portrait of a Seated Woman’ (c.1850-1855) was restituted from the Gurlitt trove to the heirs of Georges Mandel (Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Cornelius Gurlitt’s ‘legacy’

Hildebrand Gurlitt’s son wanted only to live a peaceful, quiet life with his father’s collection. For several decades, he had his wish, selling works through Swiss art dealer Eberhard Kornfeld when funds were needed.[5] Kornfeld has been linked to other cases involving looted art.[6]

However, returning from Switzerland in 2010, Cornelius Gurlitt, nearly an octogenarian, raised suspicion with customs officials at the German border by carrying large quantities of cash which he said were the proceeds from a pre-war sale by his father at Galerie Kornfeld.[7] A tax investigation by German authorities followed, involving a search of Gurlitt’s residences. The trove was found and seized from his Munich apartment and his property in Salzburg, Austria. More than a year later, the news broke[8] and alleged heirs began to surface.

Cornelius had already experienced at least one heir’s claim  – and it “irritated” him.[9] He had intended to sell a Beckmann work on paper, The Lion Tamer, obtained by his father in 1934, but was forced to share its sale proceeds after the auction house learned of, and wanted to quietly handle, a claim by the heirs of the work’s prior owner, Jewish dealer Alfred Flechtheim.[10] To Cornelius, these heirs represented “threats” to his father – the “true victim of Hitler”.[11]

After Germany’s confiscation of his beloved legacy, Cornelius Gurlitt held one last surprise that was revealed posthumously: his collection – with all its mystery – was left to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland.

Efforts to resolve the trove’s dubious provenance

 Understanding the provenance of an artwork is unquestionably important to reunite it with its owners, and many of the works held by Gurlitt lack a complete provenance.

Nonetheless, the Kunstmuseum Bern accepted the collection, acknowledging its “considerable burden” and the “wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind” it presented. At least one work from the trove has been sold to offset costs arising from such ‘questions’. The work, Edouard Manet’s Ships at Sea in Stormy Weather (1873) is now being reunited with its pre-war collection at Toyko’s National Museum of Western Art.

Édouard Manet’s ‘Ships at Sea in Stormy Weather’ (1873) (Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

While the Kunstmuseum continues its provenance research, an international group of researchers recently announced its findings about the collection in the essays, “Gurlitt Art Find. Paths of Research“. Co-editor of the essays and board member of the German Lost Art Foundation, Gilbert Lupfer, has suggested one take away from the Gurlitt trove: discovery of looted art must include looking not just to museums but also to private collections.

At present, over 1,000 works from Gurlitt’s collection are listed in the database of the German Lost Art Foundation’s Gurlitt Provenance Research Project. These are divided into two categories: more than 700 ‘completed’ works and just over 300 works suspected to have been ‘degenerate’ and listed as the responsibility of Kunstmuseum Bern.

Within the ‘completed’ category, upward of 40 works were labeled ‘without review’ and not in the collection by way of Nazi looting. Approximately half of these were believed taken from museums as part of the ‘degenerate art’ campaign, having been acquired by the museums prior to the National Socialists’ control.

A remaining 600 plus works in the ‘completed’ category were further categorized as: “proven or high­ly like­ly to be Nazi-loot­ed art”; “proven or high­ly like­ly not to be Nazi-loot­ed art”; or “[p]rove­nance dur­ing the pe­ri­od be­tween 1933 and 1945 is not en­tire­ly clear; there are gaps in the prove­nance”.

The hundreds of works marked as having ownership gaps included over thirty drawings and two sculptures by Auguste Rodin, a Picasso drawing, and seven Gustave Courbet paintings.These and other works in this category could very well be Nazi loot, but insufficient information has been presented to evidence that.

Identifying prior ownership history for these works is an especially mired process because, although Gurlitt’s estate produced over 27,000 ledgers, ad­dress books, cat­a­logs, cor­re­spon­dence, pho­tographs, and the like, Hildebrand Gurlitt is known to have conducted his business with falsified receipts and aliases for an unknown number of transactions, making reliance on his records for provenance purposes a questionable process at best.

Resolutions for Nazi-looted art in the collection

Some artwork holds clues to its past on its face. Thomas Couture’s Portrait of a Seated Woman, (c.1850-1855) is one such work. Its prior owner Georges Mandel was identified from an unusual mark on the canvas – a small hole – that was listed when the painting was reported stolen. By infrared examination, that mark was confirmed to have existed and been repaired, establishing Mandel’s ownership. Unfortunately, such a pivotal clue is rare.

Paul Signac’s ‘Quai de Clichy. Temps Gris’ (1887) (Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Another rarity is a solution like that reached for one of the more prominent works from the collection: Paul Cézanne’s 1897 La Montagne Sainte-Victoire. Despite gaps in its provenance, the research project had determined that the painting was likely not looted by the Nazis. Nonetheless, the Cézanne family’s petitions for its return resulted in an agreement whereby the Kunstmuseum retains ownership of the painting but it will be regularly shown at Musée Granet in Cézanne’s hometown of Aix-en Provence.

To date, the restituted works from the Gurlitt collection include Thomas Couture’s Portrait of a Seated Woman (1850-55); Paul Signac’s Quai de Clichy. Temps Gris (1887); Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on a Beach (1901); Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Fan (1921); a watercolor and oil painting by Jean-Louis Forain; and a Gothic church interior drawing by Adolph Menzel.

While suspicion about the collection as a whole is raised due to its contents including works such as these which have been shown to be looted, notes Andrea Baresel-Brand who participated in the collection’s investigation, “the fact is that most of the works cannot be said to have been plundered”. Until gaps in provenance can be filled, that will likely remain the case.

Restitution provides ‘a bit of historical justice’ for Holocaust victims

Return of looted artwork honors the memories of those who were forced by the Third Reich to part with their culture – one artwork at a time. The collective history of these unclaimed works bears witness to an unmet need for justice to those victims and their families; and the unresolved history of so many works from the Gurlitt Trove exemplifies what a monumental task it is to attain such just solutions.

As Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Grütters put it, “at least a little bit of historical justice” can be obtained each time a work wrongly taken in the Nazi era is returned. Until full restitution of Nazi looted art has been attained, though, a palpable tension will persist wherever looted works are displayed – or hidden.

[1] Amineddoleh, Leila, Monuments Men, Hidden Treasures, and the Restitution of Looted Art at 16 (January 1, 2014). New York State Bar Association, Entertainment, Arts & Sports Law Journal, 2014. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2434205

[2] Lane, Mary M., Hitler’s Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019 at 169-170.

[3] Monuments Men, Hidden Treasures and the Restitution of Looted Art at 17.

[4] Id.

[5] Hitler’s Last Hostages at 230-231.

[6] Reif v. Nagy, No. 161799/15, 2019 WL 2931960, at *15 (N.Y. App. Div. July 9, 2019)

[7] Hitler’s Last Hostages at 232.

[8] Id.at 2.

[9] Id. at 236.

[10] Id.at 235-236.

[11] Id.at 236.