by Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO
Sunday afternoon at about 1PM GMT the Museum Security Network received an announcement of a breaking story in Focus, a weekly news magazine published in Munich and distributed widely throughout Germany. As the nation’s third-largest weekly news magazine, their stories tend to be fact-checked well though they don’t often have breaking news in this sector of the art world. Scanning the announcement, I had to reread the notice twice before it sunk in. It seemed like an unbelievable fairytale.
Customs police had discovered a cache of approximately1,500 once-believed destroyed works of art by many of the masters of classical modernism. Stuffed in an dark apartment in Schwabing, a borough eleven minutes north of Munich, the investigators found works believed to be attributed to Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Albrecht Dürer, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Max Beckmann, Max Liebermann, and Oskar Kokoschka: artworks that disappeared off the art world’s radar screen during and shortly after the Second World War.
During the war, many of these works were declared entartete Kunst (degenerate art) a derogatory term adopted by the Nazi regime that was used to describe much of what was the party classified as “modern art” though this label alone is misleading. The name also became the moniker of a Nazi exhibition in 1937, which featured 114 modernist artists’ works curated to show the work as deviant and without social value. Interestingly, the exhibition was held in the very city where the cache of missing paintings were to be uncovered.
The "Entartete Kunst" exhibit ran from July 19th through November 30 1937 and presented 650 works by artists deemed to be contaminated by Jewish thought or ideology even if few of the artists who contributed to the modernist movement were actually of Jewish descent. Branded as an enemy of the state, German painter Max Beckmann, long considered to be one of the towering figures of 20th-century art, is said to have fled to Amsterdam on its opening day.
From Cubism to Dada to expressionism to surrealism, the modernist art aesthetic didn’t fit with the Third Reich’s anti-Semitism, nor with Adolf Hitler's belief that classical Greece and the Middle Ages were the true sources of Aryan art. Labeled as un-German or Jewish Bolshevist, the regime considered works of art from these genres subversive. To purge the world of the influence of degenerate artists more than 5,000 works were given this label and confiscated or purchased under duress through forced means during Hitler’s reign. Many of these works of art have never been seen again.
Which brings us back to the present and Sunday’s breaking news. Just how did reclusive octogenarian Cornelius Gurlitt come by his hoarded mother-load of missing art, nestled secretively amidst his stash of past their date of freshness nibbles? Schwabing may be a Bohemian quarter of Munich, but surely 1,500 works of art being moved into a building would have attracted someone’s attention.
Those interested in art crime and Holocaust-era art losses began searching for more information as soon as the story broke in Germany. Within 48 hours all the news wires were abuzz.
What we do know now is that Gurlitt was the sole surviving son of the German-Jewish art dealer and historian Hildebrandt Gurlitt who traded in 'degenerate art'. Stopped on a train during a routine control, officers searched the younger Gurlitt and him found him to be carrying a suspicious envelope containing 9,000 Euros in large denomination bills, an amount just shy of the legal limit for monetary instruments when traveling between two countries of the European Union.
Many individuals commenting on this breaking news seem surprised that the German authorities have the legal right to conduct these types of searches on common citizens. In reality, in the age of revolving credit and plastic money, large sums of undeclared cash would alarm virtually all police and custom border authorities, not just those in within the European Union. Amounts of currency entering or exiting a country are monitored as a means of investigating tax evasion, drug dealing, terrorist financing and other criminal activities.
In Gurlitt’s case, tax authorities were routinely checking passengers traveling between Germany and Switzerland in an effort to ferret out tax evaders, many of whom have long taken advantage of Switzerland’s tax haven and secretive banking rules.
As Europeans have seen the rules governing tax treaties begin to change, tax evaders have begun carrying their legal tender back home, presumably to stuff in mattresses. Some pass over the border with below the limit installments so as to arouse less suspicion, carrying monthly allowances in unassuming envelopes like the one carried by Cornelius Gurlitt. Others bring back larger sums, strapped to their bodies or tucked inside corsets. Last September another German citizen was arrested when it was found that he was carrying 140,000 euros stuffed inside his adult diaper.
But even with his relatively thin envelope, Cornelius set off alarm bells. He acted nervous and gave authorities an Austrian passport in the name of Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt, born December 28, 1933, in Hamburg - currently residing in Salzburg. Becoming suspicious, Germany’s tax authorities located his residence in Germany not Austria and subsequently issued a search warrant in the Spring of 2011 seeking entrance to his apartment in Schwabing in hopes of implicating him in tax fraud and embezzlement.
What they found instead was 1,500 pieces of history, each of which asks as many questions as they answer. Strangely though, in the two years that have passed since the raid occurred and the artworks was seized, no single list has been made public identifying which works of art were squirreled away in Gurlitt’s hoarder’s heaven. Forbes magazine listed an abstract figure of $1 billion but until a list is obtained that itemizes the pieces seized, this figure should only be considered speculation.
Berlin Free University has confirmed that Meike Hoffmann of its degenerate art research unit is helping identify these art works but no information has been given as to how long the art historian has been working with authorities on the process or why, given the number of pieces involved, other researchers familiar with modernist painters have not been brought on board.
What the motive was for father and son to secretly stash away so many remarkable treasures is something we may never fully grasp. Hildebrandt Gurlitt died in 1956 leaving his son holding the bag and the younger Gurlitt himself is reported to have tersely asked the police why they couldn’t couldn't have waited until he was dead, stating "They would have got their hands on the art anyway."
I for one would like to ask Cornelius how possessing something in secret, like the best of art thief clichés, was more fulfilling for him than being remembered as having returned these works to their public and private owners and undoing the pain and damage caused by his father’s lies and deceit. From 1956 to today, the thought never crossed his mind to turn these objects over for the greater good? Surely he realized that his family owed it to the artists, if not to their relatives, to inform the world that these works of art had not been lost after all.
One can speculate that the elder Gurlitt lied about the paintings due to some misconstrued belief that the artworks might be confiscated by the invading Russians when they entered Dresden during the war. He could likewise have continued to keep them hidden long after the war fearing they would have been shipped outside Germany to one of Russia’s great museums when Germany was still divided. Similarly, after his father’s death and before the fall of the Berlin wall, Cornelius too may have elected to remain silent. But why not in the years following Germany’s unification? Why did this man chose to continue to facilitate his family’s deception, living as a recluse off of the random pieces he sold?
While these questions hold historic curiosity for me personally, I may never know the answers. Gurlitt’s neighbors in the modest residential building where he lives have not seen the octogenarian for more than a year, though his name is still on the bell.
More important to the art world and hopefully more easily answered is understanding why the Munich tax authorities chose to keep this remarkable find confidential, limiting access to the case to only a chosen cadre. Angela Merkel, herself stated yesterday that "The government were informed about this case a few months ago".
Realizing that who potentially owns these pieces may be a very tangled legal ball of thread to unravel, I also wonder how Focus came to know of the seizure and why they chose to break the story now while the investigation is ongoing. Do they know something we don't?
Augsburg public prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz has implied that the information was kept secret to facilitate the ongoing investigation. In a press meeting earlier today he stated that "the prosecution has not gone public. To this day it is - as I said - counterproductive for us to go with the case to the public. We did not save the images. The pictures should not be hung in my office."
Siegfried Klöble, the government director of the Munich customs investigation also added that the investigators are working on the assumption that there may be another cache of paintings in an undiscovered location.
In the meanwhile, all the government’s secrecy and limited number of resources working on the investigation has angered many in art community, myself included.