Secret of a two-faced plunderer revealed
Four years ago, the Munich flat of an elderly recluse was raided by the German authorities. The mysterious, white-haired loner had fallen under suspicion by tax officials after being caught carrying an inordinate amount of cash while returning home by train from Switzerland. What that raid uncovered astounded the world. For among the accumulated jumble of Cornelius Gurlitt’s bizarre life style was a priceless art collection — 1,400 works by artists such as Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Degas and Cezanne.
They had been passed down to him by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of Hitler’s chief art buyers, and Cornelius periodically sold off bits of this secret hoard to pay his bills. Hence the money he carried on the train.
As journalist Catherine Hickley — a looted art specialist — shows, Hilde-
Catherine Hickley — specialist brand was the typical respectable man without malevolent inclinations, who is corrupted by a prevailing climate of evil — into which he enters because it is more profitable.
A knowledgeable lover of fine art, in particular the avant garde art deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis, Gurlitt senior was no antisemite. Indeed, he was a quarter Jewish himself and had promoted Jewish artists of the era. But with the Nazis’ rise to power, his instinct for making lucrative business deals overrode his moral scruples and he capitalised on the desperation and tragedy of the Jews. He snapped up valuable art owned by Jews at knock-down prices, then sold them for a hefty profit. Some of those Jews managed to flee abroad, the rest perished in the Holocaust. Meanwhile Gurlitt amassed a fortune.
During the war, he acquired works for the planned Fuhrermuseum, the grandiose showcase for Hitler’s favoured pictures, to be built in Linz, Austria, where the dictator grew up. As well as from Jews selling under duress, he bought art looted from them, especially in France, where the Nazis plundered renowned galleries, owned by the likes of George Wildenstein, Paul Rosenberg and others, and the collections of eminent families such as the Rothschilds and David-Weills.
Gurlitt professed to loathe Nazi ideology but, as his fat commissions rolled in, he built up the fabulous private art collection which ended up decades later in Cornelius’s cluttered flat.
After the war, Hildebrand claimed that his art hoard had been destroyed by Allied bombing. In fact, he had stashed it away in secret locations.
He was an influential figure in the post-war art world, organising major exhibitions until his death at the age of 61 in 1956. His widow Helene continued to lie, deflecting queries from those trying to trace looted art known to have been in Gurlitt’s possession.
His son Cornelius dedicated his life to safeguarding the artworks he said were the only things he had ever loved.
When the 81-year-old died in 2014, he left the entire collection to a Swiss museum. Following legal proceedings, a few of the works have now been returned to the heirs of their rightful owners, and a German task force is investigating the provenance of all the works in the Gurlitt collection. Restitution claims are expected to continue for years to come. And one might well ask: how many other secret hoarders of Nazi-looted treasures are out there?
Monica Porter is a writer and journalist