December 02, 2013
Update on the Cornelius Gurlitt Collection
Monuments Men Foundation
The recent discovery in Munich of 1,400 valuable pictures once owned by Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt, a former museum director and later art dealer who collaborated with the Nazis, has brought a topic back to the forefront of people’s consciousness, which some collectors and institutions might have hoped or thought would slowly go away. The opposite is the case.
The Munich discovery provides a unique insight into the complicated story of a collection, assembled by an ambivalent historical figure of the 20 th Century.
Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt was born into an intellectual family in Dresden in 1895. His father was a prominent University professor and privy counselor. His paternal grandmother was a descendant of a prominent Jewish family in Königsberg, East Prussia.
As a young man he received his history of art degree from Dresden University followed by a PhD. One of his first positions, director of the Zwickau art museum, and a later one as the director of the Hamburg Art Association he apparently lost due to two facts: his Jewish background and his interest in promoting the art of the young German Avant-garde, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, Ernst Barlach, Karl Schmitt-Rottluff, a friend from WWI days. As a young father and husband he then switched sides and started working for the fascist state, the very state which had made his early career impossible to continue. Without an income or pension from his former posts, he agreed to become a member of a newly founded Nazi Commission for the Exploitation of “degenerate” Avant-garde Art consisting of a handful of Art Experts. Propaganda minister Goebbel’s idea was to make some “money from this garbage”, the very art the museums and institutions were supposed to be cleaned off. To not appear suspicious, the members were supposed to avoid selling works of art in their own name, so auctions in neighboring countries and selling under different names became custom.
When the war ended, Hildebrand Gurlitt had in his possession a large a number of works of art, which he was able to store at Schloss Aschbach near Bamberg. According to his son Cornelius, he barely managed to bring these works out of bombed Dresden. Aschbach was only one of the art repositories found by the Monuments Men in April/May 1945: they located a vast number of caves, castles and salt mines in Germany and Austria filled with huge quantities of stolen, misplaced and hidden works of art and objects. They also found works of art belonging to German museums placed there for safekeeping. Capt. Robert Posey, an American Monuments officer attached to U.S. Third Army, reached Schloss Aschbach sometime in April to discover works of art belonging to museums in Bamberg and Kassel, as well as from private collections which from the start seemed to him “questionable” in origin. Also present were Karl Haberstock, who Posey described as “Hitler’s private art collector,” and a certain Hildebrand Gurlitt, “an art collector with high Nazi connections.” From the outset Gurlitt claimed to be the owner of his private collection at Aschbach containing 165 items. Posey immediately placed both men under house arrest, and declared the contents of the castle “Off Limits” and under the care of the U.S. Army.
Soon the army found itself with an enormous and complex problem: what to do with all these artworks, many of which were uncrated with little or no protective padding. The original assignment of the Monuments Men - to protect and repair monuments and locate missing works of art - expanded. Relying on their museum experience, they created central collecting points, and then began the huge task under war-ravaged conditions of transferring millions of items to Munich (mostly looted works of art); Offenbach (looted books, archival material, and objects of everyday Jewish life including more than a thousand Torah scrolls); and Wiesbaden (German museum contents and privately “owned” property, including the 165 items in the possession of Hildebrand Gurlitt).
While some Monuments Men and women sorted through the collecting point contents trying to determine the country of origin of each item, others interrogated key Nazi officials and art dealers. The French heroine, Monuments officer Rose Valland, later recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, who spent her entire life searching for works of art removed from her country, interrogated Gurlitt early on in 1945. Her incentive was to avoid returning to Gurlitt works stolen from French and other collectors.
And therefore questions had to be asked. How did Hildebrand Gurlitt acquire these works? Did he buy them before 1933? Did he inherit them? Did they come from Jewish sources? All these questions were put forward to him and evidence requested, which were supplied in the form of affidavits, for instance by his half-Jewish secretary, an artist who had a Jewish wife. Gurlitt had helped to bring his paintings safely from Germany into Switzerland. Others included a letter by German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann thanking him for an exhibition that Gurlitt had put on in Hamburg against much criticism. Gurlitt produced reasoning which made it look as if these 165 works were rightfully in his possession.
Monuments officer Edgar Breitenbach also interrogated Gurlitt on several occasions. Breitenbach, who like Gurlitt had a German Jewish background, had been forced to flee in 1933 eventually immigrating to the United States. This squat, middle-aged man, known for “pursuing these missing works patiently---like a wily fisherman,” had every motivation to avoid returning objects of questionable origin to a man who had extensive dealings with the Nazis. Breitenbach continued his work in Germany on restitution and recovery matters until 1956, long after the closure of the collecting points, leading to decorations by a German government appreciative of his meritorious service. Breitenbach was unable to assemble evidence defeating Gurlitt’s claim.
The establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in September 1949 followed by the introduction of Military Government Law 59 pertaining to the restitution of property to German citizens placed further pressure on the Monuments Men to conclude their work. The army wanted the collecting points closed. With above-mentioned third-party affidavits in hand seeming to affirm the ownership of Gurlitt’s collection, Monuments Officer Theodore Heinrich signed the formal custody release form on December 15, 1950, five years after the collection was captured. Monuments Man Thomas Carr Howe executed a similar document returning two additional works the following year.
Did the Monuments Men and women use their best judgment in this case and work as thoroughly as possible? This must be fully affirmed. They detained Gurlitt; protected the works of art he claimed until war’s end; and over the next six years conducted extensive investigations into the question of ownership. It is worth noting that during that time no competing claims were received. Sixty-three years later, with the benefit of information not available to the Monuments Men in the post-war years, it does appear that some of the works in Gurlitt’s wartime collection of 165 items were Nazi-era losses of Jewish families. Whether he acquired them first or second hand from those families is to date unknown. More information is certain to become accessible in the coming weeks.
Any such works should have a chance to be returned to their original owner’s family because Nazi-era losses occurred under special circumstances which must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis taking into account the circumstances of the loss, the fact that these profoundly illegal acts took place over 60 years ago, and should not simply be dealt with by applying the common law, including statutes of limitation and laches defenses, as if the events in question happened only recently in a normal society.
Any sale of Jewish property in Germany between 1933 and 1945 needs to be interpreted as under duress unless it can be shown that the sales price was for the fair market value and that the seller had free control over the purchase proceeds. But at the same time defenses such as Cornelius’s claim that his father saved the works from bombed Dresden should also be fairly evaluated. In 2013, technological advances, chiefly the accessibility on the internet of research materials unavailable to the Monuments Men at the time, provide an opportunity to thoroughly investigate the works of art in question. By the time the last collecting point was closed in 1951, the Monuments Men and women had successfully returned almost 5 million cultural objects to the countries from which they had been taken.The challenges, achievements, and unfinished work of the Monuments Men can now be continued.
The Gurlitt case reminds us that the mission of the Monuments Men is not complete. Vast numbers of cultural objects remain missing. It’s now up to all of us---museums, auction houses, private collectors, politicians, legislators, veterans of all sides, immigrants, and people of good will---to work together and write this final chapter of WWII history.
Relevant Archival Documents from NARA, located via Fold3.com:
Monuments Man Robert Posey Report April 1945: This report indicates that Monuments Man Robert Posey had located Hildebrand Gurlitt. We know that he also placed the Castle Aschbach where Gurlitt was living with his collection "Off-Limits".
Castle Aschbach Inspection Reports May 1945: These reports of May 16 and May 18, 1945 outline in detail the collection found with Hildebrand Gurlitt by the Allies.
Rose Valland Report: Rose Valland reports that 1 painting, 2 pastels and 9 drawings by Liebermann have been taken from Gurlitt's residence at Castle Aschbach and moved to the Nuremberg Museum waiting to be transported to the Munich Collecting Point. From there, they will be returned to France.
Pahl-Rugenstein Statement on Gurlitt: This third-party sworn statement was provided by Hildebrand Gurlitt as evidence of his ownership of the art collection.
Erich Krause Statement on Gurlitt: This third-party sworn statement was provided by Hildebrand Gurlitt as evidence of his ownership of the art collection.
Hildebrand Gurlitt's Sworn Statement: This 1950 statement provides background information on Gurlitt and his collection.
Hildebrand Gurlitt's Marked Inventory List: This inventory list of Gurlitt's collection shows notations to the left of each entry indicating their provenance.