Germany’s Stolen (Degenerate) Art Problem

The German Nazi Past seems always to be lurking around in the background of German life. Over the past few weeks the German Past has once again emerged from the shadows, suddenly all too evident in the glare of headlines all around the world.

In a story that the German news magazine Focus first broke in the first week of November 2013, it was revealed that a cache of more than 1,400 artworks confiscated by the Nazis had been discovered in a cluttered apartment in Munich’s Schwabing district. The inhabitant of that apartment turned out to be 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, despite having a Jewish mother, was an art agent commissioned by the Nazis to cleanse German museums and galleries of so-called “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst).

Der Spiegel cover

Cornelius Gurlitt on the cover of Der Spiegel in November 2013. PHOTO: Der Spiegel

The discovery of this looted trove had actually occurred almost two years earlier when Bavarian tax authorities raided Gurlitt’s Munich apartment. As the story developed, there were far more questions than answers. At first little was revealed about the artworks, but it soon became clear that they included paintings by modern masters such as Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso – most of which the Nazis had seized from European museums, stolen or bought for a pittance from Jewish collectors who were forced to sell.

The collection has been estimated to be worth around $1.3 billion, but does it really belong to Herr Gurlitt? After remaining out of sight for weeks, the elderly recluse stated in an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel that he would not willingly surrender “his” art, to which he was strongly devoted. And indeed, some German authorities and legal experts were saying that Gurlitt had a legal claim. Others pointed out that Germany could and should nullify his ownership under the Washington Declaration, an international agreement on looted art which Germany signed in 1998.


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Although the Washington Declaration also says that state-owned museums have the responsibility to identify and restore art lost as a result of Nazi persecution to its rightful owners, few German art museums have made any such effort. Claiming that it is too expensive to do so, German museums have refused to make digital archives available online so that possible owners or their heirs could find looted art.

As more and more works from Gurlitt’s collection were revealed, it became apparent that most of it had probably been stolen or seized from Jewish owners before the end of World War II. Jewish groups, including World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, called for Germany to publicize suspicious art to allow possible heirs to find long-lost works. Lauder also urged Germany to create a commission to examine all public collections for looted art, not just the most recent discovery. He also called on Germany to negate the statute of limitations on Nazi-era art crimes.

Other critics expressed astonishment that the Bavarian government had only one person, art expert Meike Hoffmann, working on identifying and cataloging Gurlitt’s art. Claudia von Selle, a Berlin lawyer specializing in art, said the German government needed to assign more people to the task. “I don’t think the German state has fully realized what’s fallen into its hands. Germany needs to show some courage and say ‘We will give these art works back to the owners’. They certainly have valid hopes for restitution now,” said von Selle.[1]

Art Imitating Life? The Monuments Men
The German Past and its ties to looted art will return to the spotlight when the George Clooney-directed film The Monuments Men is released in February 2014. (The picture was originally scheduled to open in December 2013, but had to be delayed for special effects work.) Starring Clooney and Matt Damon, and adapted from Robert Edsel’s historical account, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the motion picture tells the story of the Allies’ valiant efforts to find and save millions of cultural objects that the Nazis had stolen from all across Europe on orders from their art-loving Führer. Adolf Hitler intended to put the best of his extensive art collection on display in a grand museum in the Austrian city of Linz, which he also planned to reshape into one of the greatest cities of Europe.

The Monuments Men - movie still

George Clooney, center, with, from left, Sam Epstein, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Matt Damon in The Monuments Men. PHOTO: Claudette Barius/Sony Pictures

The Monuments archiving and preservation work continued for over six years with a task force of some 345 men and women. More than five million stolen art items were returned to their owners, but the head of the Monuments project, Lieutenant Commander Jim Rorimer (played by Matt Damon in the movie), estimated that approximately 750,000 pieces of art were still unaccounted for when the project was halted in 1951.

What Germany does between now and the film’s 2014 release may well determine how the world views the country’s efforts to provide justice for the heirs of the original owners of the art stolen by the Nazis. If Germany doesn’t do the right thing in the Gurlitt case, The Monuments Men film will serve to remind us, yet again, of the German Past and promote a negative view of how today’s German government deals with it. Cornelius Gurlitt’s tax evasion, his and his father’s deceptive tactics related to his art trove, and many other aspects of the case make one wonder how the German government could possibly allow Gurlitt to keep art that has such a dark history.

Related Web Links

1. The Jerusalem Post: “Germany could challenge recluse’s ownership of Nazi looted art” (Nov. 6, 2013)

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