German gov’t says it was only informed “several months ago” about the private art collection estimated at over 1 billion euros that was seized in early 2011.
Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany: “We demand the paintings be returned to their original owners,”
By News Agencies & Israel Hayom Staff
German authorities are investigating a huge art find reported to include hundreds of works seized by the Nazis and considered missing for decades, officials said Monday, but a Jewish group accused the German government of moral complicity in the concealment of the stolen paintings following the revelation that authorities failed for two years to report their discovery.
U.S. soldier views art stolen by the Nazi regime and stored in a church at Ellingen, Germany April 24, 1945 – Photo: Reuters
The discovery was first reported by Germany’s Focus magazine, which claimed Sunday that a cache of 1,500 works, including pieces by such masters as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Emil Nolde, was found in a Munich apartment in early 2011.
Focus estimated that the works found among stacks of hoarded groceries in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, could be worth well over 1 billion euros.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the government was informed “several months ago” about the case. He said authorities in Berlin were supplying “advice from experts in the field of so-called ‘degenerate art’ and the area of Nazi-looted art.”
Seibert referred further questions to prosecutors in the southern city of Augsburg, where spokesman Matthias Nickolai said he could give no details before a scheduled press conference Tuesday morning.
“This case shows the extent of organized art looting which occurred in museums and private collections,” said Ruediger Mahlo, of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, noting private collections were almost all Jewish.
“We demand the paintings be returned to their original owners. It cannot be, as in this case, that what amounts morally to the concealment of stolen goods continues.”
He criticized the lack of transparency in dealing with the case and said it was typical of the attitude towards looted art, which for some Jewish families constitutes the last personal effects of relatives murdered during the Holocaust.
But art historians say the works could mainly consist of what the Nazis considered “degenerate art” that did not necessarily belong to Jews.
These were largely modern or abstract works by artists that the regime of Adolf Hitler believed to be a corrupting influence on the German people. Their “deviant” characteristics were often attributed to Jewish corruption, and thousands of such works were seized.
“We don’t know how many of the 1,500 works are ‘degenerate’ works or looted by the Nazis,” said Christoph Zuschlag, an expert on “degenerate art” at the University of Koblenz. “So we need to examine each piece individually.”
He cautioned against overestimating the value of the collection before it had been thoroughly assessed. “We need to see whether these were originals or prints,” he told The Associated Press.
He noted that of the 21,000 pieces of “degenerate art” seized from German museums in or shortly after 1937, two-thirds were prints while only one-third were originals.
The case poses a legal and moral minefield for authorities. The Nazi regime systematically plundered hundreds of thousands of art works from museums and individuals across Europe. An unknown number of works is still missing, and museums worldwide have held investigations into the origins of their exhibits.
Germany has faced criticism that the restitution process is too complicated and lacks sufficient funding and has set up research schemes.
The Gurlitt haul is also believed to contain a painting of a woman by Henri Matisse which belonged to Paris-based Jewish art collector Paul Rosenberg.
The apartment building in Munich, Germany, where 1,500 artworks allegedly belonging to Holocaust victims were found – Photo: AP
Focus said Cornelius Gurlitt had funded himself by occasionally selling art works and he had a bank account containing half a million euros. He attracted the suspicion of authorities in late 2010 when they found him travelling from Zurich to Munich with a large, albeit legal, amount of cash.
A search of his flat led them to the sensational find.
Cornelius’s father Hildebrand Gurlitt was from 1920 a specialist collector of the modern art of the early 20th century that the Nazis branded as un-German or “degenerate” and removed from show in state museums.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels recruited Gurlitt to sell the “degenerate art” abroad to try to earn cash for the state. Gurlitt bought some for himself and also independently bought art from desperate Jewish dealers forced to sell.
After the war he persuaded the Americans that, as he had a Jewish grandmother, he himself had been persecuted. He continued working as a dealer and died in a traffic accident in 1956.
Auction houses in Bern, Switzerland and Cologne, which sold some of the art works both said Hildebrand was a known dealer.
Karl-Sax Feddersen, a lawyer with Lempertz auctioneers in Cologne, which sold a pastel drawing of a lion tamer by German expressionist Max Beckmann, said, “From our point of view this is a totally normal case. An old gentleman contacted our Munich office and offered them a Beckmann pastel … we had a restitution problem which we actively addressed and we found a solution ahead of the auction.”
It turned out the artwork had been bought from a Jewish owner under pressure at the time to sell. After selling for 864,000 euros, Cornelius gave a portion to the heirs of the original owner.
Galerie Kornfeld, an auction house and gallery in the Swiss city of Bern, where Gurlitt auctioned paper works for 38,250 Swiss francs in 1990, said in a statement the works were purchased cheaply in 1938 by Hildebrand from a collection of state-owned art.
“Cornelius Gurlitt inherited the works after the death of his mother Helene. Basically this is a case of undeclared inheritance.”
The gallery added a clear distinction should be made between looted art and works from the Nazis’ former holdings of state-owned so-called “degenerate art” which can be freely traded.
View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=13127