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.