Monday, November 04, 2013


Hildebrandt Gurlitt did not obey orders.

After his Nazi superiors told him to destroy all the artwork they had stolen and put on display as examples of degenerative art, he said the artwork was lost when his flat in Dresden was bombed. To the rest of the world, the works by artists such as Matisse and Picasso were presumed lost.

Hildebrandt Gurlitt lied about the devestation. He had all the work hidden away and knew it was perfectly safe, completely intact.

After the war, he could have turned it over to the victors, but Dresden was claimed by the Russians and Mr. Gurlitt was not going to let them have the priceless art. It would only be taken to Moscow, to hang on Stalin's walls or be stuck in some storage place and left to rot. He kept hiding the trove, through the Commuist takeover and the subsequent misery that followed. He never let on that he still had 1,500 pieces of art that he was supposed to have destroyed.

He died in 1956 and his son carried on the family tradition of safeguarding artwork that the rest of the world was not looking for because it was presumed lost forever.

In time, the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union collapsed. With east and west united, it would have been possible for Cornelius Gurlitt to come forward, but he was not the type to be forward about anything. The 80-year-old son of the Nazi-era art collector has been described as reclusive. In less polite terms, he was more of a hoarder, perhaps driven to maniacal secrecy by the contents of the family flat and the paranoia generated by the Communist regime.

His Munich apartment was raided after customs officers found 9000 euro in Mr. Gurlitt's possession. If the EU is good for one thing, it's good at collecting its share of everyone's earnings, and they are very concerned with money being transported across borders to avoid taxes. As it turned out, they had stopped a man who had never held a job or registered with German authorities. The money in the old gentleman's pocket came from somewhere, however,  and the EU wanted its piece of the action. The apartment raid was intended to uncover something like money laundering or a black market operation, but what was discovered was more than amazing.

As best as authorities could determine, Mr. Gurlitt sold a painting here and there to get enough to live on, and his living standards were more than modest. The apartment was cluttered with empty tins of rotting food, the lare of a hoarder. Clearly he was not selling art to fund a lavish lifestyle, but to squeak by, as if he was driven by desperation to sell what he did not wish to sell.

What will become of Mr. Gurlitt is not an issue being mentioned because the art world is too stunned by the news that what was once thought lost has now been found. All the items in the Munich flat were purchased from Jews fleeing the Holocaust, sold for a pittance to Hldebrandt Gurlitt. Because the art is considered stolen, authorities are focusing on the nearly impossible task of reuniting the artwork with the descendants of the original owners.

Mr. Gurlitt's hedge against old age is gone, and he could be charged with selling stolen art. The auction house that represented him in his most recent sale will be entangled in a legal mess, and the person who bought the art in good faith will have their own set of lawyers to defend them, or at least get full restitution.

To think that a man could defy the Nazis to preserve something so valuable to society is remarkable. That his son managed to keep his secret for seventy years is a story worth telling. We can only hope that Cornelius Gurlitt will finally speak.

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