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2012 Munich artworks discovery

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2012 Munich artworks discovery

Franz Marc's Pferde in Landschaft, one of the artworks discovered in the Gurlitt collection (probably 1911, gouache on coloured paper).

In March 2012, 121 framed and 1,258 unframed artworks were seized by the District Prosecutor of Augsburg from an apartment in Schwabing, Munich.[1] The artworks, some of which were suspected of having being looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, were discovered in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of art historian and dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, and grandson of the art historian Cornelius Gurlitt. The collection contains old masters as well as impressionist and expressionist paintings by artists including Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Otto Dix, and Max Liebermann, among many others. The magazine Focus reported the discovery on 3 November 2013.[2] In February 2014, Gurlitt had his lawyers secure additional paintings in his Salzburg home and investigate their provenance.[3]

On 7 April 2014, an agreement was reached by which the collections of artwork which had been seized were to be returned to Gurlitt in exchange for his co-operation with a government-led task force charged with determining which of the pieces had been stolen and returning them to the rightful heirs.[4] However, Gurlitt died only a month later, on 6 May 2014.[5] In his will, he gave all his possessions to the Museum of Fine Arts Bern, Switzerland, and the museum will inherit his collection after legitimate claims against it have been evaluated.[6][7]


A confiscated self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh is auctioned at Gallerie Fisher, Lucerne, in 1939. The winning bid was $US 40,000 by Dr. Frankfurter.[8]

In the 1920s and early 1930s, art dealer and collector Hildebrand Gurlitt held a number of positions within the German art and museum establishment. After the Nazis came to power, however, he was excluded from many of these because of his Jewish grandmother.[2][9][10]

Later, appointed as a dealer for the Führermuseum in Linz and being personally instructed by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, Hildebrand was employed by the Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art with Karl Buchholz, Ferdinand Möller, and Bernhard A. Böhmer to market confiscated and stolen works of art abroad. They were instructed to sell these for foreign currency and make a good profit out of them, which he enabled through use of his extensive network of European and North American art contacts, though they did not always report all funds to the commission.[2][9][11]

Degenerate art was legally banned from entering Germany by the Nazis. Once so designated, this art was held in what was called the Martyr's Room at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, France. Much of noted impressionist and post-impressionist dealer Paul Rosenberg's professional and personal collection was designated degenerate art by the Nazis. Following Goebbel's decree, Hermann Goering personally appointed a series of ERR approved dealers in Paris, including Gurlitt, to liquidate these art assets and then use the funds to swell his personal art collection.[12]

1945 sworn statement by Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt to allied authorities in 1945. Gurlitt describes his dealings before and during the war and lists (with purchase price and seller) the art in his possession
It was later reported by Bild am Sonntag that, as part of its investigative process, current German authorities had gone back through Nazi records looking for correspondence exchanges with Gurlitt.[13] Through this process it was discovered that, in May 1940, the Reich Propaganda Ministry sold 200 paintings to Gurlitt for 4,000 Swiss Francs, including Chagall’s The Walk, Picasso’s Farming Family, and Nolde's Hamburg Harbour.[13] Hildebrand acquired an additional 115 works of degenerate art in the same way in 1941.[13] It is hence estimated that, at its height, he had established a personal trading collection of more than 1,500 pieces.[2][9][11]

Gurlitt used his position to sell art to domestic collectors, most notably to Bernhard Sprengel, whose collection forms the core of the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.[14] As most of the looted degenerate art was sold overseas via Switzerland, Rosenberg's collection was scattered across Europe. Today, some 70 of his paintings are missing, including: the large Pablo Picasso watercolor, Naked Woman on the Beach, painted in Provence in 1923; seven works by Matisse; and the Portrait of Gabrielle Diot by Degas.[12]

Captured with his wife and 20 boxes of art in Aschbach (Schlüsselfeld) in June 1945, Gurlitt told interrogating United States Army authorities acting on behalf of the joint-allied army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) that the art was part of his personal collection, but that all of his records had been destroyed at his home in Kaitzer Straße during the bombing of Dresden in February 1945.[15] Assessed as a victim of Nazi persecution due to his Jewish heritage, he was released.[2][9] Questioning by the authorities was focused on the MFAA's core classical art brief of preserving Europe's cultural history over the impressionist and post-impression "degenerate art" in which Gurlitt traded under the Nazis. He was only specifically questioned about the origin of some 200 paintings that stemmed from French ownership, which he stated that he had legally acquired between 1942 and 1944 from a French art dealer in Paris.[16]

Max Liebermann's Riders on the Beach in the Gurlitt collection and subject to a claim by the descendants of the original Jewish owner

Suspicious of his story, after further investigation on 15 December 1950, the U.S. Army returned 206 items to Gurlitt, including: Max Liebermann's Two Riders On The Beach; Otto Dix's self-portrait; an allegorical painting by Marc Chagall; 112 further paintings; 19 drawings; and 72 "various other objects".[17] Gurlitt continued trading art works until his death in a car crash in 1956.[2][9][11]

Discovery by German customs authorities

According to Focus magazine, in September 2010 German custom officers undertook a routine search of passengers on a train from Switzerland and found Cornelius Gurlitt, Hildebrand Gurlitt's son, with €9,000 (£7,500; $13,000) in cash[2] (which was perfectly legal, being below the €10,000 reporting limit).[18] After further investigation by the prosecutor's office, since he was unemployed and with no obvious means of income, in September 2011 the prosecutor obtained a warrant to investigate his small flat in Schwabing, Munich. In late February 2012, when checking the premises, they discovered more than a thousand pieces of art, with a present estimated value of up to €50 million.[2][9][19][20] By the end of November 2013, the leading prosecutor said in an interview that they had not found the collection by chance, but had been looking for it from the outset.[21]

The magazine Focus reported the discovery, stating that, of the estimated 1,500 pieces, at least 200 are documented as having been lost since the Nazi era.[2] Now being held in a secure warehouse in Garching, the collection includes recovered works by the following artists:[2] Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Canaletto, Marc Chagall, Hans Christoph, Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Eugène Delacroix, Otto Dix, Albrecht Dürer, Erich Fraaß, Conrad Felixmüller, Bonaventura Genelli, Ludwig Godenschweg, Otto Griebel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Bernhard Kretzschmar, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lachnit, Max Liebermann, August Macke, Franz Marc, Fritz Maskos, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, Théodore Rousseau, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Carl Spitzweg, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Christoph Voll.

Initial legal handling of the Gurlitt case

On 5 November 2013, Reinhard Nemetz, the head of the prosecutors' office in Augsburg, said that 121 framed and 1,258 unframed works had been seized in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt in early March 2012,[1] including unregistered works by Chagall, Dix, Liebermann, and Matisse.[1] The art historian examining the collection, Meike Hoffmann, who claimed in print in 2010 that "not a single one" of these works was ever acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt,[22] stated to Focus that as many as 300 pieces appeared in the 1937 Nazi Degenerate art exhibition in Munich.[2][9][19] She is trying to trace the original owners of the works, and their surviving relatives.[2][9] Art historians have asked that a complete list of the paintings be published, so that they may be returned to their rightful owners.[23]

Speaking to Der Spiegel magazine in November 2013, Gurlitt alleged that his father had obtained the works legally and that he would not voluntarily give anything back to previous owners.[24][25] Feeling threatened by the intense media attention, Gurlitt's brother-in-law offered 22 works in his possession to the police for safekeeping.[13][26]

The art dealer Paul Rosenberg who fled to the USA, and reclaimed some of his paintings after the war. He is standing in front of a Henri Matisse painting, Odalisque in a Yellow Robe, 1937.

A portrait of a woman by Henri Matisse is directly traceable to the collection of Paul Rosenberg, a Jewish art dealer from Paris who represented Matisse and Picasso and who had been forced to leave his collection behind when he fled France.[27] When approached by Focus, Rosenberg's granddaughter, French television presenter Anne Sinclair, who has been fighting for decades for the return of the art dealer's paintings, stated that she knew nothing of the existence of the painting.[2][9] Recovery efforts for "A portrait of a woman" were immediately undertaken by Christopher A. Marinello behalf of the Rosenberg heirs both with Cornelius Gurlitt, his legal representation and the German state.[28] On 15 May 2015, "A portrait of a woman" was returned to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg. [29]Some paintings have yet to be recovered, such as an oil on canvas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir of Aline Charigot from 1881. It is believed the work was sold to a collector in Florida in 2002.

Checks by German federal police, as well as customs and tax authorities, found that Cornelius Gurlitt was not registered with the police, the tax authorities, or social services and that he drew no pension and had no health insurance.[2][9] Later, it appeared that he was registered in Salzburg, Austria. One of the last pieces that Cornelius Gurlitt sold was The Lion Tamer by Max Beckmann, which he sold via the Lempertz auction house in Cologne for nearly £750,000[2][9] after a settlement initiated by the auction house was concluded between Gurlitt and the heirs of Alfred Flechtheim. Other works were reportedly sold some time ago through the Bern-based gallery of Eberhard Kornfeld.[15]

In March 2014 a BBC reporter was granted access to one of the locations where 238 of the seized works are stored. He viewed works such as Monet's Waterloo Bridge (1903) and others by Picasso, Cezanne, Liebermann, Renoir, Courbet, and Manet.[30]

On 7 April 2014, a month before his death, an agreement was reached by which the seized artwork was to be returned to Gurlitt in exchange for his co-operation with the government-led task force charged with determining which of the pieces was stolen and returning them to the rightful heirs.[4]

Death of Gurlitt, and after

Cornelius Gurlitt died on 6 May 2014.[31] The Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland, named by Gurlitt as his sole heir in his will, stands to inherit the works.[6]

Gurlitt's cousin, Uta Werner, filed a claim of inheritance on the artwork. Werner's lawyer, Wolfgang Seybold, argued that Gurlitt's relatives are the righful heirs. Seybold supported his argument with the opinion of psychiatrist and lawyer Helmut Hausner, who stated that Gurlitt suffered from schizoid personality disorder, delusions, and dementia when he wrote the will bequething his collection to the museum.[32] It is possible that a number of artworks will be returned to Gurlitt's estate, as he would have been considered the rightful owner unless the heirs of previous owners can prove that he obtained them through unlawful means.[33] German authorities estimate that around 590 pieces need further investigation for possible confiscation under the Nazi regime, and a further 380 have been identified as confiscated by the Nazis as degenerate art.[34]

In July 2014 two sculptures were discovered in Gurlitt's home and could be works by Rodin and Degas.[35] In September a painting by Claude Monet was discovered in a suitcase belonging to Gurlitt.[36]

Max Liebermann's painting Riders on the Beach is due to be auctioned at Sotheby's on 24 June 2015 in London.[37]


The prosecutor's right to seize the collection has been questioned in German papers.[38][39] Property rights in works of art acquired during the Nazi period appear highly complex.[40] This refers in particular to works of degenerate art, the confiscation of which had been formalized by a Nazi law[41] which after the war was deliberately upheld by the Allied Control Council in order to facilitate further art dealing.[42]

Unlike in Austria,[43] there is no law in effect in Germany requiring the return of Nazi-looted art, as long as the items in question can be proven to have, at any point in time, been legally acquired. As signatories of the 1998 Washington Agreement, Germany agreed that all of its public institutions would check their inventories for Nazi-looted goods and return them if found. However, this is on a strictly voluntary basis and, 15 years later, only very few museums and libraries[44] have complied. Individuals are under no legal requirement whatsoever to return Nazi-looted art. Any failure on the part of the German government to return the rightful possessions of Cornelius Gurlitt may very well prove a violation of his constitutional property rights.[45]

On 4 December 2013, prominent German art historian Sibylle Ehringhaus, who was one of the first experts to view the artworks in the spring of 2012, gave an interview in the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper demanding the immediate return of the complete collection to Gurlitt. She had looked at the works very briefly and had not researched their provenance however, because as she states in the interview, "Cornelius Gurlitt commissioned neither myself nor anyone else" to perform such research. Chief Prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz vehemently denied her appeal, yet apparently failed to cite any concrete legal grounds for the seizure.[46][47]

On 20 November 2014, the German jurist Jutta Limbach, the head of the Limbach Commission on Nazi-looted art, confirmed the opinion of the German Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper interviewers that the Bavarian “State Prosecutor used an incorrect application of the tax liability law to seize" the artworks of Cornelius Gurlitt.[48]

There are a number of outstanding claims against the Gurlitt collection from descendants of the original Jewish owners of a number of the paintings, including Max Liebermann's Two riders.

Swiss museum's acceptance of Gurlitt's estate

On 24 November 2014, the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern agreed to accept the Gurlitt estate. According to museum officials, no art looted by the Nazis will be permitted to enter the museum. Around 500 works will remain in Germany until their rightful owners can be identified. Three pieces will be returned immediately: Henri Matisse's Femme Assise will be returned to the descendants of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, Max Liebermann's Two Riders on the Beach will be returned to the great-nephew of the industrialist and art collector David Friedmann, and Carl Spitzweg's Playing the Piano will be returned to the heirs of music publisher Henri Hinrichsen, who was murdered at Auschwitz. The Rosenberg family expressed their gratitude to the museum.[49]

List of selected works

German authorities announced that they will list all 590 suspect pieces in the Lost Art Internet Database.[34] As of November 2014, only 492 objects are listed.[50] Descriptions of some of the artworks found have been made public since their discovery, which include:[26][51][52][53][54]

See also


  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^
  8. ^ Hammerstingl, Werner (1998). "Entartete Kunst", Retrieved December 31, 2007.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^ a b c d
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Gurlitt had declared to the customs, not to carry money with him (allowed was a sum below € 10,000), and after a personal search in the toilet of the train the customs found in fact precisely € 9,000, which was a considerable sum, however, still below the limit, yet enough for the customs officers to remain suspicious. - Cash in amounts equal to or exceeding €10,000 have to be declared (s. 12a ZollVG – German Customs administration act)
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^
  21. ^ Kein Zufallsfund. Interview with the leading prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz in Süddeutsche Zeitung of 22 November 2013
  22. ^ Hoffman's book (in German) Ein Händler "entarteter" Kunst: Bernhard A. Böhmer und sein Nachlass. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-05-004498-9. (Schriften der Forschungsstelle "Entartete Kunst"), p. 211
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ a b
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ a b
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^ Politische Strafjustiz (in German) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 November 2013, by Volker Rieble.
  40. ^
  41. ^ Gesetz über Einziehung von Erzeugnissen entarteter Kunst (Act on the Confiscation of Works of Degenerate Art) of 31 May 1938
  42. ^ art"degenerate Kunst" – "The problems surrounding ownership rights to entartetenHeuer, Carl-Heinz (undated). "Die eigentumsrechtliche Problematik der (bilingual), on the website of the Free University of Berlin
  43. ^ Kunstrückgabegesetz 1998 (Art Return Law 1998) See the German WorldHeritage entry for details.
  44. ^ The Central and Regional Library of Berlin is the only library in Germany to have full-time staff devoted to the search for Nazi-looted cultural goods.
  45. ^ Fluch des Schatzes (Curse of the Treasure) in Der Zeit, 21 November 2013 (in German). “German museums are accordingly, albeit rather hesitantly, searching for looted art in their collections, and from time to time works are returned. This is cumbersome, mostly unspectacular and takes far too long, but it is still the right way. But Cornelius Gurlitt is a private person, and therefore the principles of the Washington Agreement do not apply to his artworks. He cannot be forced, and it appears the government wants to seize the works, which is hardly possible in the face of the constitution.”
  46. ^ See Interview: Kunstexpertin fordert Rückgabe aller Bilder an Gurlitt, Augsburger Allgemeine, 4 December 2012 (in German) or a translation of the article in English.
  47. ^ Augsburger Staatsanwaltschaft weist Vorwürfe der Kunstexpertin zurück Augsburger Allgemeine, 5 December 2012 (in German)
  48. ^ Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ein Bild lässt sich abhangen, Schuld nicht (in German; English: "A picture may be taken down, but not the guilt"), interview by Heribert Prantl and Kia Vahland, 20 November 2014, p. 19.
  49. ^
  50. ^ Lost Art Database, listings from the so-called "Munich artworks discovery" at bottom under Bestände (English: Inventories) Viewed on 20 November, 2014.
  51. ^
  52. ^
  53. ^
  54. ^

Further reading

  • German watercolors, drawings and prints [1905–1955]. A midcentury review, with loans from German museums and galleries and from the collection Dr. H. Gurlitt, Catalogue of the exhibition in New York City, San Francisco and Cambridge MA, 1956

External links

  • Official website
  • Obituary in The Independent by Marcus Williamson
  • Israeli art expert says Nazi-looted trove in Munich is 'just the tip of the iceberg'Haaretz, (requires subscription and/or registration)
  • NY Times, 6 November 2013Documents Reveal How Looted Nazi Art Was Restored to Dealer,
  • , NY Times, 12 November 2013Germany to Form Task Force on Looted Art
  • , 6 November 2013In a Rediscovered Trove of Art, a Triumph Over the Nazis’ WillMichael Kimmelman, NY Times,
  • Nazi looted art works discovered in MunichVerena Nees,
  • BBC inspects art stash
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