2017-11-01 10:08:03
Hidden Treasures of Nazis’ Art Dealer Finally Go on Display

Weeks after a German magazine tipped off the world that an 80-year-old man had hoarded hundreds of artworks collected by his father during the Nazi era in a Munich apartment, the world gasped at the prospect of rediscovering long-lost treasures.

This week, four years after the discovery of the collection inherited by Cornelius Gurlitt, the public will be able for the first time to view 450 of the most valuable works, previously seen only in photographs, in a pair of coordinated exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany.

The parallel shows, running under the title “Gurlitt Status Report,” will allow the public to view works by Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Otto Dix and other artists found in Mr. Gurlitt’s apartment and in another home of his in Salzburg, Austria. The collection contains 1,500 items, including paintings, sculptures, sketches and drawings but also ledgers and other documentation, much of which will not be displayed.

Most of the finest works were acquired by Mr. Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who began working for the Nazis in 1938. His son inherited the collection and kept it in the apartment for decades, until authorities discovered it as part of an investigation into tax evasion.

The younger Mr. Gurlitt died months after the discovery, leaving the collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern. But a distant cousin challenged the will. The dispute left the ownership of the collection in limbo for more than a year, delaying the exhibitions.

“Gurlitt Status Report” delves into the history behind the collection and the circumstances under it came together. This includes an exploration of the ambiguities surrounding Mr. Gurlitt’s father’s personal history. He was persecuted as the grandchild of Jew, but he also became one of only four dealers allowed to sell artworks confiscated by the Nazis.

Also displayed are documents that record the efforts of the two galleries staging the exhibition to establish the original ownership of the works.

Each of the shows focuses on a different aspect of the Third Reich’s policies on art. The Bern exhibition, “Degenerate Art, Confiscated and Sold,” opens on Thursday. Its focus is on works acquired as part of the 1938 law that allowed the Nazis to seize so-called “degenerate” art, mostly Modernist pieces viewed by Hitler as un-German or as Jewish.

In Bonn, works in “Nazi Art Theft and its Consequences” will go on display on Friday. Most of the art in the Bonn show is suspected of having been wrongfully taken by the Nazis from its Jewish owners and the ownership history of many pieces on display is not yet clear.

Last week, researchers working with Project Gurlitt, the team of art historians and provenance researchers tasked by the German government with establishing the original ownership of works in the collection, identified a Thomas Couture painting as having belonged to Georges Mendel, a Jewish French politician.

The work, “Portrait of a Seated Young Woman,” was the sixth to have been identified, thanks in part to the restoration team in Bonn, which was readying it for the exhibition. They noticed a barely detectable repaired hole in the canvas, at the level of the young woman’s chest, a detail which had been recorded in an initial claim filed after the end of the war.

“The fact that the researchers have been able, through their meticulous and unstinting work, to identify the painting by Thomas Couture as Nazi-looted art demonstrates once again how important it is not to let up in our efforts in the field of provenance research,” Monica Grütters, Germany’s culture minister said in a statement.

News of the collection’s existence, first reported by Focus magazine in November 2013, spurred Germany to intensify efforts to establish provenance, following intense criticism for having kept the works secret for months after their initial discovery by tax authorities in February 2012. But three years after research efforts began, researchers had established the original ownership of only five works.

The collection was hailed by art historians when it was found as the “most important discovery of Nazi-looted art since the Allies discovered the hoards in the salt mines and the castles,” and initial speculation placed its total value at more than $1 billion. As the reality of the scope and contents of the collection have become clear, the monetary value has been scaled back to hundreds of millions.

Rein Wolfs, director of the Kunstmuseum Bern, and Nina Zimmer, director of the Bundesdunsthalle, wrote in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition that they do not see the value of the collection in monetary terms. Rather, they wrote, it is an opportunity to “pay homage to the people who became victims of the National Socialist art theft, as well as the artists who were defamed and persecuted by the regime as ‘degenerate.’ ”