In 2010, Cornelius Gurlitt aroused the suspicions of Swiss customs officials when he was found leaving the country with 9,000 Euros in cash. The incident attracted the attention of the German authorities, who found that Gurlitt was slowly selling off items from his art collection. Then, writes Sophie Gilbert, they searched his apartment:
Inside a small flat in a boxy white building, hidden in filing cabinets and suitcases, investigators found more than 1,500 works by artists including Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Liebermann, Chagall, Dürer, and Delacroix. The German authorities were investigating Gurlitt for tax evasion; what they found instead was an amassment of art that was immediately, incontrovertibly suspicious. . . .
The trove was seized by Bavarian officials and taken away for inspection. It was also kept quiet for more than a year, until the German magazine Focus published a . . . report about the discovery, alleging that the value of the secret masterpieces could total one billion euros. The article also noted the baggage associated with the Gurlitt name: that the items hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt had likely been acquired by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of the most notorious art dealers employed by the Third Reich. The fact that the Bavarian authorities seem to have sat on the find was attributed to the reality that they just didn’t know what to do with what they’d uncovered. . . . Above all, the trove was an inconvenient reminder that the issue of looted and confiscated art persists as one of the unresolved crimes of the Nazi regime. . . .
Born in 1895 to a family of artists and art historians, [the elder Gurlitt] first became director of a museum in Zwickau in 1925, where he was a cheerleader for contemporary art. In 1933, the year after Cornelius was born, Hildebrand was forced to resign as managing director of the Hamburg Art Association by the Nazis because he’d exhibited and promoted “degenerate” art. But his expertise in the field also made him invaluable to the regime as a dealer; having been cut off from his career in museums, Gurlitt saw a business opportunity. He presumably reasoned that his relationship with the Nazis protected his family, given his Jewish grandmother, while also salvaging the works he sold from destruction. Meanwhile, he profited immensely from it.
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access