Art Law Report

Focus Turns to Hildebrand Gurlitt’s Postwar Interrogation; Cornelius Gurlitt’s Whereabouts. Belvedere Official Questions Whether Collection Was Really a Secret

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on November 7, 2013 at 6:06 AM


The focus has turned today on the whereabouts of the mysterious Cornelius Gurlitt, who is unaccounted for as the biggest restitution story since the end of World War II unfolds. Asked if it was even known if Gurlitt was still alive Bavarian prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz would not even comment.

There is an explosive claim posted by Monopol today (a German periodical that covers the arts). Alfred Weidinger, deputy director of the Belvedere in Vienna (itself no stranger to restitution quarrels), is quoted as saying „It was no secret that there was this collection“ among southern German art dealers and experts, and that it was absurd that the collection could have been unknown to anyone searching the history of the Gurlitt collection.

It is also worth noting that quite distinct from the general hands-in-the-air confusion of the late 1990s, a consensus has emerged that this discovery should be handled consistent with the Washington Principles. Germany itself is somewhat hamstrung by the confidential nature of what began as a tax investigation (the details of which ordinarily must be kept secret, no matter what the topic), but the Merkel government is giving off positive signals that it views the Washington Principles as the governing concept.

For those that have not had time to review the statement from the MFAA files after Hildebrand Gurlitt was interviewed at the end of the war, the document offers some fascinating details. Most prominently, it is silent on the topic of “degenerate” art and the trade in it. Today’s FAZ, however, reports in detail on a 1943 interaction with Max Beckmann himself.

Further, Hildebrand Gurlitt described going to Paris for the infamous Dr. Herman Voss, director of the Wiesbaden gallery and successor to Hans Posse at Dresden when the latter was tapped to head the Führermuseum project in Linz (both “thoroughly convinced Nazis,” as the phrase goes in German). Gurlitt said that as an “anti-Nazi” he lost his position as the leader of the Hamburg Kunstverein, but that the expeditions to France allowed him to avoid duty in the Organisation Todt, the engineering group that was infamous for using forced labor (named after Fritz Todt, not the German word for “death”). Gurlitt moved his family to Dresden in 1942 after bombing in Hamburg (though, it seems before the best-known attack that essentially destroyed Hamburg; that he would move to Dresden for safety holds a fair amount of historical irony).

Gurlitt claimed in the interrogation that the purchases he was making were “perfectly normal” for Hitler’s collection. He claimed to have “never” seen artwork in France seized from Jews.

As for the most-cited topic of the fate of his collection, Gurlitt said that he had stored “his father’s paintings” in the Dresdner Bank, which was incinerated in the February 13, 1945 bombing. But he also referred to “my paintings” “here in the castle,” giving credence to the interpretations floated this week that the paintings found in Munich in 2011 may well have been in Allied hands and returned to him directly. Some of the paintings may also have come from the museum in Wiesbaden, complicating still further the question of ownership.

Bloomberg reports today on the story of the heirs of David Friedmann, a businessman persecuted by the Nazis whose collection may have included the painting Riders on the Beach by Max Liebermann apparently in the Gurlitt find.


Max Fisher also has a good rundown in the Washington Post of some of the overarching issues in restitution.

On a somber concluding note, it is worth mentioning that today is the75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis’ more subtle thuggery took a turn for the worse, for good.


Topics: Jeu de Paume, unbekannte Meisterwerke, February 13 1945, FAZ, Focus, Hildebrand Gurlitt, Dresden firebombing, Max Fisher, Cornelius Gurlitt, S. Lane Faison, Linz Führermuseum, Munich Central Collecting Point, Monopol, Wiesbaden Collecting Point, Dresden, HARP, Reinhard Nemetz, Max Liebermann, WWII, Monuments Men, Gurlitt Collection, Max Beckmann, Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Naz, Auktionshaus Lempertz, Entartete Kunst, Fine Arts and Archives Program, Nazis, Marc Chagall, Organisation Todt, Paul Klee, Entdeckung verschollener Kunst, beschlagnahmte Bilder, Dresdner Bank, Belvedere, Fritz Todt, Holocaust Art Project, Hamburg Kunstverein, MFAA, Roberts Commission, Angela Merkel, Restitution, Wien, Monuments Fine Arts and Archives, World War II, degenerate art, Erben, Raubkunst-Bildern, Portrait of Wally, Washi, Löwenbändiger, Austria, Franz Marc, Oskar Kokoschka, Washington Principles, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, München, Pablo Picasso, Dr. Herman Voss, Kristallnacht, Riders on the Beach, Hans Posse, Nazi Raubkunst, Vienna, Alfred Weidinger, Henri Matisse, Emil Nolde

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About the Blog

The Art Law Report provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the museum and visual arts communities. It is authored by Nicholas M. O'Donnell, partner in our Art & Museum Law Practice.

The material on this site is for general information only and is not legal advice. No liability is accepted for any loss or damage which may result from reliance on it. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.

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