Nazi Trove and the Upside of Wartime Plunder

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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An unknown Chagall of a couple kissing under three crescent moons; a brutal self-portrait by Otto Dix, cigarette clenched between his teeth; a depressive nude by Ludwig Kirchner.

Any one of these works, discovered in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt more than a year ago and made public this week, could have been the gem of a major 20th century art exhibition. And we have yet to see the Matisse, the Renoir, the works by Picasso, Nolde and Kokoschka.

Prosecutors have given the public its first glimpse of what they found of the World War II-era collection assembled by Gurlitt's father, Hildebrand, an art dealer of Jewish origin who was commissioned by the Nazis to sell "degenerate" art confiscated from German museums.

Hitler, a failed painter whose watercolors fetch a few tens of thousands of dollars at auction only because of his non-artistic exploits, loved realistic art. He despised anything that lay outside the tradition established by the old masters. Consequently, according to art historian Lynn H. Nicholas' book "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War," confiscation committees removed 16,000 works from Germany's public collections by 1938.

Nazi leaders had a good idea of the art's market value. Hermann Goering plundered the Berlin warehouse where they were kept and sold a Cezanne and two van Goghs in Amsterdam. Hitler inspected the collection and decreed that the government of the Third Reich should be freed from all compensation claims for the "safeguarded" works. Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary that it was now possible to "make some money from this garbage." The Nazis formed a Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art and appointed four art dealers to market the works. Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of them. In 1930, he had been fired as director of the Zwickau museum in eastern Germany, for "pursuing an artistic policy affronting the healthy folk feeling of Germany" -- and for his "impure" origins. He was, however, an expert and therefore of value .

The four dealers were able to pay a fraction of the paintings' value to buy them, as long as it was in hard currency. Gurlitt, for example, bought a portrait by Max Beckmann for one Swiss franc. Lawyer and art lover Rolf Hetsch, who managed the sales, was willing to sell to anybody just to get the paintings out of Germany: His main interest appeared to be in saving them.

Gurlitt also traded heavily on the art market of occupied Paris, acquiring paintings -- not all of them genuine -- from impoverished French collectors and Russian emigres. He obtained old masters that could be exchanged for "degenerate art" from Germany. Much of what he bought appears to have remained in his possession.

After the war, Gurlitt was arrested by the allies and his collection was checked, but he was allowed to keep it. It isn't clear how much of the art he accumulated during Nazi rule he showed investigators. In any case, the new Germany, too, needed his expertise: He ran Kunstverein Duesseldorf with its excellent art gallery until his death in 1956.

Gurlitt was part criminal and part savior. He apparently traded in art the Nazis seized from Jewish families, and he certainly made money by selling works plundered from German museums. On the other hand, there was no other way to save much of that art from destruction. The 1,400 paintings, lithographs, drawings and prints found in his son's apartment in Munich are remarkably well-preserved. Gurlitt was, after all, a museum man first and foremost.

The fate of the treasure he accumulated is now in the hands of lawyers. Prosecutors won't even release a full list of art works from Cornelius Gurlitt's apartment, for fear of an avalanche of false claims from lawyers representing Jewish families that lost art to the Nazis.

Greed must have been one of Gurlitt's motives building his collection, and his son was certainly moved by it as he kept the collection hidden and quietly sold pieces from it, flying below the art world's radars. Yet the fact that the masterpieces are intact and in have been kept one place is a remarkable result of Gurlitt Senior's efforts. Most of the "degenerate art" that the Nazis confiscated in the 1930's is considered missing.

At the press conference where works from the trove were shown, Meike Hoffman, a Berlin art historian who was asked by the prosecutors to review the collection, said this: "When you stand before these works that were for a long time believed lost or destroyed and you see them in a relatively good condition, then that delivers an incredible feeling of joy." Art lovers should not be denied the chance to see the paintings and feel as Hoffman did. The Gurlitt trove must be exhibited no matter what claims may follow: Those will eventually have to be settled anyway.

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