The Gurlitt collection is often described as a “trove” of art, as if someone had discovered the hidden tomb of a fascinating but spooky mummy.
Yet up to the 1950s, the paintings amassed by Mr. Gurlitt were considered one of the most important family collections in Germany.
Only decades later, when passed on to his son, Cornelius, did public interest begin to fade.
Then, in 2012, the collection was “discovered” again in the course of a tax investigation. Of the 1,280 works in the collection that were seized by prosecutors as part of the evasion, some 240 are believed to have been looted from Jewish owners or purchased under force. Reactions in Germany were dramatic.
The story of Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer during the Nazi era, is not easily told. It does not vindicate his actions, nor does it shed him in a particularly flattering light. But it does show that life and art between 1933 and 1945 were more intertwined than many care to admit these days.
Forced from his museum post in Hamburg by the Nazis in 1933, Mr. Gurlitt turned to buying and selling art to make a living. The National Socialism campaign against what was called “degenerate art” offered him an opportunity in 1937; he was chosen as one of four dealers allowed to sell confiscated artworks for foreign currency. The Nazis didn’t like him but needed his expertise.
Mr. Gurlitt saved numerous works that might have been destroyed. Samuel Beckett, during a stay in Germany from 1936 to 1937, was amazed at the collection, calling it a wonder of German expressionism.
After the Nazi regime ended its degenerate art campaign, Mr. Gurlitt moved to Dresden in 1942. There, his career took a surprising turn after being hired by Hermann Voss, who was in charge of collecting artworks for Hitler’s future museum with a nearly unlimited budget for acquisitions. He appointed Mr. Gurlitt as his main buyer, making him from 1943 onwards part of one of largest organized theft efforts of art of all time.
It was a deal with the devil and saved Mr. Gurlitt from a worse fate because of his partial Jewish ancestry. The position made him wealthy. He made purchases in the Netherlands and Belgium, but most of his activity was in Paris, where the collections of Jewish families were sold to the highest bidder.
Mr. Voss was prepared to pay any price, including a few million francs for a painting from van Dyck in 1943 when the war was already going badly for the Germans. Officials in the Reich Chancellery were so stunned by the amount they demanded time to consider it. An enterprising Mr. Gurlitt, however, bought the painting with his own money only to sell it to his boss at a tidy profit. He never let an opportunity pass, no matter how risky it was.
His collection was cherished at a time when little thought was given to art’s provenance. It was even shown in the United States in 1955.
After the war, the Americans interrogated Mr. Gurlitt about his role in the art theft and asked him to catalog his personal collection. Mr. Gurlitt said he had art worth only 50,000 to 80,000 marks, equivalent to about €2 million, or $2.5 million at today’s exhange rate. He claimed the Allied firebombing of Dresden destroyed much of his collection.
By 1947, Mr. Gurlitt was back in business. A year later, he became the director of Düsseldorf’s art academy. His reputation was intact – seen as someone from a respected family before the Nazis came to power. His collection was cherished and was even shown in the United States in 1955, a year before Mr. Gurlitt’s death in a car accident.
His widow and later his son Cornelius inherited the works, and the collection was gradually forgotten.
What makes Mr. Gurlitt’s life so noteworthy perhaps is how normal it was to participate in Nazis crimes without being a fanatic supporter.
This is an abridged version of an article originally appearing in Die Zeit. To contact the author: Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org