Hildebrand Gurlitt’s horde of art stolen during World War II is finally beginning to find its way back to the original owners, or their heirs, nearly a century after the conflict ended.
During World War II, Gurlitt, a specialist in modern art, was hired by Joseph Goebbels, the feared Nazi propaganda minister, to sell priceless artworks stolen from homes and museums across Nazi-occupied Europe.
Gurlitt focused on so-called “degenerate” art, a term used by the Nazi’s to justify seizing masterpieces by such artists as Picasso, Henri Mattise, Marc Chagall and Paul Klee. Gurlitt was ruthlessly efficient in his work.
German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters made the presentation and hailed it as an important step toward healing wounds from the war.
“We Germans know of our wrongdoing and know that we can never put right the misery. But at least returning these kinds of art works are small but important and necessary steps towards justice in one small area,” she said.
A great niece of the painting’s original owner, Parisian lawyer and art collector Armand Dorville, said she was very touched by the gesture.
“If pictures could speak, if they could tell us their journey, they would tall us an incredible amount about robbery, theft, fraudulent sales and what we can learn from that,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
“You are fulfilling the obligation to keep alive the memory and that this is taking place today on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is … a symbol,” she said.
Dorville’s heirs decided sold the art works in a forced auction in Nice in 1942. It’s unclear who bought them, but the German puppet Vichy government seized the proceeds.
Gurlitt was born in 1895 in Dresden, Germany and was well known in intellectual circles.
His father and other family members were friends with well-known German artists, and his acquaintances included Irish author Samuel Beckett.
After graduating, he landed a job as the first director of the König Albert museum in Zwickau in 1925. Five years later he was fired for setting up an exhibit by modernist artists at the museum.
Oddly, his maternal grandmother was Jewish, and for a time, the Nazis persecuted him. He lost his job and couldn’t find work.
Yet, his expertise apparently saved him. When the Nazis began seizing art, his knowledge of the market proved indispensable.
He was hired as a specialist at Hitler’s personal museum under the direction of Propaganda Minister Goebbels. For the Reich, he oversaw the seizure of “degenerate “art and used his wide contacts in the art world to sell it overseas to raise foreign currency for the war effort.
The art recovered in Munich apparently came from a personal collection that he skimmed from stockpiles of seized and stolen art. He was interrogated after the war and claimed his personal collection of some 1,500 works was destroyed in the Dresden fire bombing. In fact, it had survived intact.
Ironically, he used his Jewish heritage to escape prosecution after the war.
Investigators now value the art at more than $1.3 billion, according to Focus. Cornelius Gurlitt was under suspicion for tax evasion. Investigators found the art when they executed a warrant to search his apartment.
Gurlitt is a minor character in the historical science fiction novel “The Heidelberg Conundrum” now on sale on Amazon.com.