Se­cret of a two-faced plun­derer re­vealed

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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

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