Swiss mu­seum seeks own­ers of looted art


A TREA­SURE trove of art con­fis­cated and looted in the Nazi pe­riod has been put on show in the Swiss city of Bern. The ex­hi­bi­tion in the city’s art mu­seum, Nazi art theft and its con­se­quences, This Au­guste Renoir por­trait from 1892 is seek­ing an owner is show­cas­ing just some of the 1,500 pieces dis­cov­ered in the home of Cor­nelius Gurlitt, the reclu­sive son of a Nazi art dealer.

His fa­ther, Hilde­brand Gurlitt, who worked as an art dealer in Ham­burg, had taken ex­ten­sive ad­van­tage of an­tisemitic leg­is­la­tion be­fore the Sec­ond World War that forced Jewish art deal­ers to close their busi­nesses.

The elder Gurlitt bought up art­works from per­se­cuted art col­lec­tors, many of whom were plunged into fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties be­cause they were for­bid­den to work and had to sell their valu­able pos­s­e­sions, of­ten at below mar­ket prices. De­spite his own Jewish roots, one of his jobs was to sell con­fis­cated “de­gen­er­ate’”art abroad on be­half of the Third Re­ich.

When he died in 1956, the col­lec­tion he ac­cu­mu­lated passed to his son Cor­nelius who sold it off piece by piece in Switzer­land to fund his life­style.

He was even­tu­ally ap­pre­hended by the tax au­thor­i­ties and when his Mu­nich home was searched in 2012, a sen­sa­tional dis­cov­ery was made: a stash of art­works by Pablo Pi­casso, Claude Peter Brueghel’s The Younger River, a 1630s land­scape that even­tu­ally came into Cor­nelius Gurlitt’s pos­ses­sion

Monet, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Au­guste Renoir and oth­ers.

Al­though many are sus­pected to have been bought from Jewish fam­i­lies for a frac­tion of their es­ti­mated value or ac­quired un­der duress, only six works from the Gurlitt col­lec­tion have defini­tively been iden­ti­fied as looted art.

Four of these, in­clud­ing Max Lieber­mann’s paint­ing Two Riders on the Beach and Henri Matisse’s Femme as­sise, have been re­stored to the le­gal heirs, while some 60 more art­works are still be­ing in­ves­ti­gated.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to find the right­ful own­ers for dif­fer­ent rea­sons,” Ni­cola Doll, the musem’s head of prove­nance re­search, told the JC. “Doc­u­ments prov­ing own­er­ship or pos­ses­sion no longer ex­ist; they might have been de­stroyed dur­ing the war or lost dur­ing de­por­ta­tion.

“To­day, 70 years af­ter the end of the Nazi regime, those who sur­vived the

An Au­guste Rodin sculp­ture on dis­play in Bern

Holo­caust are very old. Their rel­a­tives and fam­i­lies live all over the world and of­ten don’t even know about for­mer pos­ses­sions.”

Not ev­ery­thing on dis­play is with­out an owner: Jasper Wolf­s­son, who was only re­cently re­united with some of his fam­ily’s works of art, loaned a pen­cil draw­ing by renowned 19th­cen­tury Ger­man artist Adolf Von Men­zel to the ex­hi­bi­tion. The draw­ing be­longed to Ham­burg’s Co­hen fam­ily, who sold their col­lec­tion to Gurlitt to pay for their em­i­gra­tion. “Gurlitt paid a very low price. The fam­ily was Jewish –– so it can be con­sid­ered a ‘forced sale’,” Ms Doll said.


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