In September of 2010, German authorities at the Swiss border stopped an aged man on his way back into Germany. The man, nearly 80 years old and bent with age, would have seemed harmless had it not been for one thing: he was carrying more than €9,000 in cash, an amount that rang alarm bells for German tax authorities. After questioning the man, they learned that the large sum was the product of the sale of a painting, which set off more alarm bells considering the man, now known to authorities as Cornelius Gurlitt, had no clear occupation or means of income. Was he involved in smuggling art across the border without paying taxes? The question was enough to request a warrant to search Gurlitt’s apartment in the wealthy arts district of Schwabing in Munich.
Almost 18 months later, authorities opened the door to Gurlitt’s flat to find not bills of sale, but more than 1,400 framed and unframed works of art that Gurlitt had purportedly inherited from his father, Hildebrand, who, in spite of being “a quarter” Jewish (according to the Nuremberg Laws), had infamously worked as a high-profile art dealer during the Third Reich. Among these works were masterpieces by Max Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Emil Nolde, and Henri Matisse. Authorities were uncertain what to do, at least at first; Cornelius had inherited the collection from his father through no fault of his own, though they were certain that at least a portion of the works comprised looted art. Ultimately the collection was confiscated. They originally valued the collection at more than one billion Euros, a number that media latched onto once news of the collection was made public in 2013, but that would later prove to be an overestimate.
During the media frenzy that followed, Cornelius defended his innocence, and eventually went to court to regain custodianship over the artworks. The German government responded by creating a task force comprised of historians and art historians to research the collection’s provenance. The task force, like the authorities, was confronted with a series of mysteries: Was the art stolen? Was it so-called “Degenerate Art”? Who actually owned the art? And importantly, how should the German government confront the injustices surely tied up with the collection’s original inception?
In the end, just four pieces were deemed with certainty to have been looted by the Nazis. Cornelius died in 2014, in the midst of the legal battle over his “inherited” art trove, leaving the entirety of his collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland, noting that Germany had treated him so badly that only a foreign country deserved his bounty. The museum in Bern agreed to accept the estate, with the exception of art that had clearly been looted by the Nazis, as well as 500 works that were to remain in Germany until their rightful heirs could be located. The works of the Gurlitt Collection had their exhibition debut in Switzerland in 2017, then traveled to Germany in 2018, where I eventually had the pleasure of viewing them at the famed Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in an expansive exhibition (Gurlitt: Status Report, An Art Dealer in Nazi Germany) that highlighted not only the priceless pieces of art, but raised complicated questions about the nature of complicity and collaboration, and the privileged status assigned to art in both dictatorships and democracies.
The account of the Gurlitt Collection since 2012 reads a bit like an art historical Indiana Jones tale, helmed by art historians instead of an archaeologist. Dr. Meike Hoffmann, a German art historian and provenance researcher who holds positions at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel and the Freie Universität Berlin, was one of the experts asked to join the taskforce in 2012. In 2016, she and art critic Nicola Kuhn, published Hitlers Kunsthändler: Hildebrand Gurlitt 1895-1956, an exhaustive biography of the father of the Gurlitt Collection. The book ends with Hildebrand’s death in a car accident in 1956 but includes a coda on the discovery of his stash of artwork in the apartment of Cornelius more than 50 years later.
If the themes in the story – including the role of art under totalitarian or genocidal regimes, and the consequences of collaboration in the aftermath of these regimes – feel familiar, it is because many of them are repeating themselves in this exact moment in the United States. In fact, one of the more stomach-churning aspects of the tale of Hildebrand and Cornelius Gurlitt and their art collection, is its resonance to the moment in which we are living – or at least, trying to survive. In the past several years, comparisons between the Nazi Germany and Trump’s America have become increasingly commonplace. Sometimes, the parallels are as overt as the co-opting of charged symbols associated with the Nazi regime. Major news outlets are publishing think-pieces examining U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans as collaborators in the crimes of the Trump regime, drawing comparisons between these American politicians and historical actors in both the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic. Fraught questions of art, public, and historical and collective memory have boiled to the surface and out into the streets as protestors and politicians debate the presence of monuments associated with not only the Confederacy, but also the country’s founding, both predicated on slavery.
Many of these questions that the U.S. now confronts openly and violently are not new to Germany, a country that has both been forced – and chosen – to grapple with its own violent history on a world stage for the past several decades. Hoffmann’s and Kuhn’s retelling of both Hildebrand and Cornelius embodies several of these questions through the lenses of art and provenance. How and why might a respected academic and art dealer with Jewish heritage come to position himself as one of Hitler’s go-to men for art “collecting” (which often involved the purchasing of masterworks from occupied territories for far below market value)? How should this collaboration be dealt with by a burgeoning West German democracy? And to whom does all of this artwork, passed down from father to son, truly belong?
Hoffmann and Kuhn begin their story with a straightforward and detailed biography of the Gurlitt family at the end of the nineteenth century. The family was immersed in the arts; Hildebrand was born in 1895 to a family that included a famed architect and art historian, musicologist, painter, and art dealer. Hildebrand’s grandmother was Jewish, making him a “quarter-Jew” under the Nuremberg laws, a label he would use to his advantage during his denazification trial in the postwar period. Hildebrand worked as director of the König-Albert-Museum in Zwickau in the 1920s, often riling up conservatives with his avant-garde taste and championing of Modernist and Expressionist art from the likes of Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Though his work and extensive networking with Modernist artists earned him national praise, the local press was less enthusiastic about the direction he was taking the museum. He was fired in 1930, finding work as director of the Hamburger Kunstverein, until the Nazis forced he and its board members to resign in 1933.
In spite of his forced resignation, it was under the Nazi regime that Hildebrand’s professional life truly flourished, due in no small part, as Hoffmann and Kuhn imply, to his rampant opportunism (or as he would later describe it, his “survivalism”). This rich theme, the grey zone between survival and opportunism (at the expense of many, as Hildebrand’s interactions with primarily Jewish artists and art dealers would show), is one that might have been even further developed in the biography. Was Hildebrand a canny operator, or just a clever survivalist? Beginning in the mid-1930s, Hildebrand began purchasing artworks for rock-bottom prices from private collectors, many of whom were Jewish, and under enormous pressure to pay usurious taxes or liquidate assets before fleeing the country. Hildebrand would later claim that he was performing a favor to these individuals, arguing that he was one of few dealers willing to undertake transactions with them; yet he benefited immensely from these “charitable” interactions, whether in terms of money or valuable artworks to his own private collection.
In 1936, Hildebrand became one of four art dealers appointed by the Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art in the Ministry of Propaganda to market and sell confiscated works of “degenerate” art abroad for exorbitant sums of money. Thousands of these works had been forcibly removed from museums all over Germany, and later German-occupied lands. Following the fall of France in 1940, Hermann Göring personally appointed Hildebrand to a small task force assigned with confiscating French art assets for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz. The art dealer purchased (again, at rock-bottom prices) hundreds of works in both Paris and the Netherlands in the next several years, many of which became part of his private collection. Hildebrand continued to rake in huge sums of money in commissions.
By the twilight of the Nazi regime, in 1944, Hildebrand had closed thousands of art deals for the Nazis. The biography truly hits its stride when discussing, at length, the ways in which Hildebrand became inextricably involved in, and ultimately corrupted by, the mechanisms of Nazism. The book argues that Hildebrand’s status as “a quarter” Jewish was a driving force for throwing himself into his work as an art dealer for the Nazi regime, as he framed it as a way to both protect himself and continue working with the Modernist (“degenerate”) art that he had always favored. As a dealer for the Nazis, Hildebrand worked to achieve high profit margins for his bosses (including Hitler) in his deals, picking out masterpieces with high international market value and demand from stashes of confiscated works.
This paradox, which might have been explored even further by Hoffmann and Kuhn, forces a complicated and still-timely confrontation with the reader: Where is the line between protecting (and, in the case of Hildebrand Gurlitt, enriching) oneself and causing irrevocable harm to others? This was a man whose knowledge of and passion for art, particularly art deemed “degenerate,” was genuine, but who aided and abetted a political regime of the worst kind. Gurlitt profited at the expense of Jews under threat of deportation and, ultimately, death. Moreover, Hildebrand later blocked inquiries by individuals and their heirs about the whereabouts of certain works of art, sometimes even lying about the presence of works of art in his private collection. Hoffmann and Kuhn do note, in a crucial insight left out of initial reporting about the Gurlitt collection, that most of the collection discovered in 2012 in Cornelius’s Munich apartment was not looted, but rather inherited or purchased. Under what specific circumstances, however, remains legally and morally dubious.
In June 1945, Hildebrand, his wife, and twenty boxes of art were captured by U.S. Army forces in a small town outside of Bamberg. Under interrogation, Hildebrand convinced American authorities that the paper trail of his art transactions had been destroyed during the fire-bombing of Dresden, and that most of his works had been acquired “lawfully.” He then used his Jewish heritage to frame himself as a victim of Nazism, rather than a collaborator. Facing two denazification trials, he was twice-exonerated, telling the court that his wealth increase was due purely to his artistic expertise, rather than circumstances of war and occupation. Free of the “taint” of Nazism, and like many mid-level collaborators in the postwar era, Hildebrand went on to build a respectable career as an exhibition manager, collector, and dealer. Upon his death in 1956, he was celebrated in the German press as a champion of modern art. Following his wife’s death in 1964, his collection of art passed to Cornelius, in whose possession it remained until his death in 2014.
Ultimately, Hoffmann and Kuhn present an exhaustively researched study of a man who got caught up in the mechanisms of Nazism, playing them to “survive” until “survival” morphed into something more nefarious. Understandably, the biography refuses to make a final judgment on Hildebrand’s activities. Further books on the Gurlitts and their collection, of which there will doubtless be several, might bring in larger questions regarding the failures of denazification, and the privileging (to political ends) of Modernist and non-figurative art in West German postwar. Perhaps the grey areas presented in the story of the Gurlitt family have become easier to fathom as we face our own reckoning with contemporary questions of collaboration, and using the government for personal enrichment at the expense of those not privileged – or bankrupt – enough to do the same.
Jennifer Gramer recently defended her dissertation, “Monuments of German Baseness”: The Legacy of Nazi-Era Art in Germany and the United States from 1945 to the Present, in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on the afterlife of art, architecture, and cultural relics relating to Nazism in post-1945 Germany, and how memories and treatment of these physical objects by governmental and cultural institutions have shaped the concept of “coming to terms with the past” in postwar Germany. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the Fulbright Program, the DAAD, and the Mellon Foundation. Jennifer also holds an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a BA in History and Art History from Syracuse University.