How An Old Man Getting Stopped on a Train Led to the Discovery of a Huge Nazi-Looted Art Trove

The Notorious Nazi-Looted Art Collection of Cornelius Gurlitt

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A death card which shows art trader Hildebrand Gurlitt, the father of Cornelius Gurlitt, lies in a folder in the municipal archive in Duesseldorf, Germany.
Image Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

In February 2012, German officials searched the apartment of an elderly man in Munich. They discovered a collection of over 1,500 priceless paintings, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and Delacroix.

The old man who owned the apartment was Cornelius Gurlitt, and his collection was inherited from his father, Hildebrand, who had been one of the most notorious art dealers for the Third Reich, shamelessly collecting works that had been confiscated and stolen from Jewish families.

The Gurlitt collection, as this haul is now known, was one of the most significant discoveries of Nazi-looted art in the 21st century. It has reignited hopes that yet more cherished works, previously thought of as lost, may once again be found.

Here is the strange story of Cornelius Gurlitt and his extensive Nazi-confiscated art collection.

Hildebrand Gurlitt, art dealer to the Nazis

Hildebrand Gurlitt was a prominent art collector, curator and museum director in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. As the Nazis rose to power and Jews were increasingly ostracized, Gurlitt used his connections to purchase works of art from Jewish collectors and families at low prices as they desperately tried to liquidate their assets. He then sold the artworks on to make a profit for himself.

Franz Marc’s Pferde in Landschaft (Horses in Landscape), one of the artworks discovered in the Gurlitt collection (probably 1911, watercolour).

Image Credit: Public Domain

During this period, Gurlitt was also officially appointed as a dealer by the Nazi Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art. He was expected to market some of the Nazis’ 16,000 confiscated works of art abroad, many of which were so-called ‘degenerate’ pieces of modern art, deemed to be unacceptable by the Nazis.

Gurlitt sold pieces abroad, both on behalf of the government and for his own profit, and sourced artworks from abroad for the planned Führermuseum, as well as for his own private collection.

At the end of the war, Gurlitt told the authorities that much of his collection and ensuing documentation had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden, and successfully distanced himself from his Nazi connections. In fact, he told authorities he had been persecuted for his own Jewish heritage and managed to negotiate the return of his collection, parts of which had been confiscated.

Post-war, Gurlitt hosted exhibitions and lent works to leading galleries and museums, whilst continuing to enrich himself through the sale and loan of works in his own collection. He died in a car crash in 1956, leaving everything, including 1,500 priceless works of art, to his wife and children.

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Inheriting the Gurlitt collection

Hildebrand’s wife, Helene, inherited on his death, and using the money he had left her, bought an apartment in Munich, whilst Cornelius purchased a house in Salzburg. Helene died in 1968, leaving the collection to Cornelius.

The collection, with works by some of the leading artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as by the Old Masters, was worth millions. But given its somewhat dubious provenance, it was not easy to sell or display. The existence of the collection remained largely secret, with no one knowing its true extent or provenance.

Cornelius lived as a virtual recluse, not working, never marrying and having very little contact with the outside world. He divided his time between Munich and Salzburg, selling paintings occasionally in order to cover his living costs.

Discovery

In 2010, Gurlitt was stopped on a train and found, to the surprise of the authorities, to have €9,000 on him in cash. Whilst this was not illegal, and he explained he’d sold a painting recently, suspicions were aroused and German customs officials obtained a warrant to search his apartment.

Much to their shock, they uncovered a veritable treasure trove: 1,406 works of art, worth tens of millions of euros, simply sitting in the apartment. The collection was confiscated, despite Gurlitt’s continued pleas to have it returned as he said he had done nothing wrong and committed no crime.

After several years of investigative work, the existence of Gurlitt’s collection was leaked to the press and gained huge amounts of publicity.

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Restitution and looting claims

Cornelius Gurlitt maintained he had legally acquired the collection from his father, who in turn had legally acquired the works of art, but eventually agreed that if any of them were found to have been looted, they would be restored to their rightful owner or heir.

Before the complicated case could be fully settled, Gurlitt died, aged 81. In his will, he left his entire collection to the Museum of Fine Arts Bern, in Switzerland, providing they would research the provenance of each individual painting and make restitution as necessary and appropriate should it have been stolen or looted.

In December 2018, it was declared that 1,039 paintings had been investigated: around 2/3 of them needed further investigation, with around 340 given the green light to be included in the museum’s collection, and 4 immediately identified as known looted works of art. As of 2021, only 14 works of art from the collection have been returned to the heirs of their original owners.

Several displays of art from Gurlitt’s collection have been curated and hosted at museums and exhibitions across Europe and Israel, highlighting Nazi-looted art.

Sarah Roller

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