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Dealing Art with the Devil

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  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Hildebrand Gurlitt left behind a sizeable art collection of questionable provenance, which was discovered in the Munich apartment of his son Cornelius in 2012.

  • Facts


    • The collection contains more than 1,000 works of art, including Picasso, Monet, Chagall, and Liebermann among others.
    • The Nazis pushed Mr. Gurlitt out of his museum job, but they employed him to sell “degenerate art” for foreign currency.
    • Several hundreds works from his collection are believed to belong to Jewish heirs of people losing their art to the Nazis.
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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.

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