Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

The German newsmagazine Focus has reported that the art collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, an 80-year old German man whose collection of 1406 artworks was seized by German authorities in his Munich apartment in Feb. 2012, was found to include several previously unknown works by famous artists including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann, Edvard Munch, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Gauguin. The collective value of the discovered works has been estimated to be at least €1 billion.

The story of Cornelius Gurlitt’s hidden collection began in pre-WWII Nazi Germany. Cornelius’ father Hildebrand Gurlitt was an art dealer and museum director on friendly terms with many modern artists of the day. After being fired from a curatorial position in Hamburg in 1933, the elder Gurlitt was one of four men asked by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to help sell the thousands of artworks the Nazis had confiscated from museums and labeled “degenerate” to overseas buyers. The Nazis organized the Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937 to showcase the kind of art they claimed to have corrupting effects on the German people. Among the elder Gurlitt’s trading collection of nearly 1500 works are also believed to be many that the Nazis confiscated from Jewish families in the lead up to and during World War II.

Near the end of World War II, Gurlitt and his family fled to the castle of a friend. As Allied Forces marched across Germany and defeated the Third Reich, they detained and interrogated the elder Gurlitt. He told members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit of the American military that most of his collection had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden and he did not participate in the confiscation or trading of illegally stolen artworks.

The Allied troops released him, satisfied that Gurlitt’s collection was rightfully owned personal property. The elder Gurlitt died in 1956 from a car crash. Meanwhile, his son, Cornelius, lived quietly in Salzburg, Austria. After the deceased Gurlitt’s wife died in 1967, Cornelius moved into his mother’s apartment in Munich — the same one where the massive collection was uncovered early last year.

What led authorities to the Munich apartment was almost sheer serendipity. Travelling from Germany to Switzerland by train in late 2010, Cornelius Gurlitt was found carrying €9000 in cash, all in crisp new €500 bills. More than a year of investigations later, authorities raided Gurlitt’s Munich apartment and found a massive collection of artworks hidden behind curtains and canned food in the guest room. The authorities carted the works away to a storage facility in the city of Garching where they sought to trace their provenance.

In an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Gurlitt maintained that he had not broken any laws and that the seized works are his rightful personal property. He expressed dismay at the media circus that has intruded his reclusive lifestyle after Focus broke the story back in early November.

“There is nothing more I have loved more in my life than my pictures,” Gurlitt told Der Spiegel, adding that the loss of his collection has been more devastating than the loss of his mother and his sister.

Gurlitt sold some of the works in his collection over the years to help pay for living expenses and medical treatment. In the fall of 2011, he put Max Beckmann’s “Lion Tamer” up for sale at an auction house in Cologne. It sold for €725,000. Gurlitt and the Jewish heirs with claim to the work settled for a 55-45 split on the sale.

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