Two years ago, an elderly man approached a German auction house with a
masterpiece: Max Beckmann’s “The Lion Tamer.”
When the auction house –
Lempertz, located in Cologne – published details of the sale, German art
attorney Markus Stoetzel immediately realized the painting’s origin.
knew the the Nazis had stolen it from the collection of a prominent Jewish art
dealer, Alfred Flechtheim.
Stoetzel contacted the auction house and
negotiated a settlement with the elderly man, a routine resolution when a seller
and auction house realize a piece of art was acquired by the Nazis.
tried to get into a conversation with this guy” about the artwork, Stoetzel
recalled. But he “was not interested to talk.”
Today, it appears
obvious why. The elderly man was Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi art dealer
who is now at the center of an international scandal over looted art.
early 2012, Gurlitt was found in possession of 1,406 other masterpieces
Picasso to Chagall – neatly stored in a Munich apartment.
was only made public more than a year later, when German news magazine Focus
published details two weeks ago.
The German government has still not
released a full accounting of the art.
For families whose artwork was
stolen by the Nazis, the delay has been agonizing. In the absence of official
information, heirs to victims have become detectives, hypothesizing whether
their property – for many, priceless family heirlooms – is in the
Digging through archives, several families have come to a sobering
conclusion: The Gurlitt name had been on their radar for years as the potential
possessor of their stolen art.
In the case of “The Lion Tamer,”
declassified US military reports reveal that the painting was with the Gurlitt
family for nearly 70 years, according to documents released by the Commission
for Looted Art in Europe. In 1945, American soldiers arrested Cornelius
Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, on suspicion of being a Nazi dealer. In
fact, Joseph Goebbels had tasked Hildebrand Gurlitt with just that
At the time, a small collection of his art was seized. One
such painting, coded in bureaucratic parlance as simply “2004/12,” was “The Lion
The painting did not stay in Allied custody for long. In 1950,
Gurlitt managed to convince the Allies that he was not connected to the Nazis,
and he was able to recover 117 paintings, 19 drawings and 72 “decorative
objects.” At the time, he told the soldiers that the rest of his art collection
was destroyed in the Allied firebombing of Dresden. After his death, in 1956,
Gurlitt’s widow told the German government that all of the family’s art was
Few in the art world suspected that the Gurlitt art trove
still existed when Cornelius Gurlitt approached the Lempertz auction house in
late 2011 with the Beckmann masterpiece.
Stoetzel spotted the auction of
“The Lion Tamer” and immediately contacted the auction house.
house did not proactively contact the Flechtheim heirs or Stoetzel.
Karl-Sax Feddersen, a legal adviser to the auction house, said Lempertz was
investigating the case at the time.
“We had done our research with regard
to the Beckmann and were discussing whether or not it was a possible restitution
case – the documentation does allow ambiguous positions – when the Flechtheim
estate contacted us,” he wrote in an email on Saturday.
with the claim, Gurlitt agreed to a settlement – the profit from the $1.2
million sale would be split with the auction house and the Flechtheim
While auction houses will inform sellers that a piece of art is
suspected to be stolen, Gurlitt was not obligated to settle the case. According
to Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material
Claims Against Germany, he could have simply walked away.
an auction house, upon finding out that an item was suspected of being plundered
[by the Nazis, will] inform the seller of this and suggest that some sort of
settlement be worked out, and the like.
But the seller can then say, ‘I
don’t want to sell it,’” Fisher said. “There is no obligation on the part of the
auction house to inform the original owners, so you have a problem.”
Gurlitt was not required to settle leaves Flechtheim’s family’s attorneys to
speculate about why he did.
“Now, looking back, we see what his goal was
here,” said Stoetzel’s colleague, New York-based attorney Mel Urbach. “He has...
other paintings to worry about at the time and said, ‘Well, these guys are here,
they may cause trouble, they may blow my cover,’” he said, hypothesizing about
Gurlitt’s reasons for settling.
Today, the Flechtheim family faces a
tantalizing prospect: If Gurlitt tried to sell one of the family’s paintings, it
is possible he has more.
The attorneys have reached out to the
prosecutor’s office in Augsburg, which is handling the criminal case, and
received no response.
The spokesman for the prosecutor, Matthias
Nickolai, said he could not disclose how many claims regarding the Gurlitt-held
art his office has received.
He wrote in an email that “lots of requests
arrived...Understandably, details cannot be advised.”
Hinrichsen, 65, is in a similar position to the Flechtheim family – she knows
that Gurlitt had one of her family’s paintings, but can’t be sure if he has
And the Gurlitt name is familiar.
announced they had found Carl Spitzweg’s drawing “Pair Making Music” in the
Gurlitt stash. The piece had been stolen from Hinrichsen’s
“I’m astounded,” said Hinrichsen, who lives in
But the Gurlitt name was not surprising. The family knew in
1971 that Gurlitt had gotten his hands on some of their property.
time, Hinrichsen’s father hired a German attorney to investigate the fate of the
artwork. In a typewritten letter, the investigator listed four paintings –
including the Spitzweg – that “cannot be traced any more.”
“All of these
were sold to the art dealer, Gurlitt, in Hamburg. Their further destiny is not
traceable,” wrote the attorney.
This letter is one piece of paper amid 15
file boxes worth of documents about her family’s art collection, which
Hinrichsen said she has now unearthed. She is going page by page to uncover the
ownership histories of her family’s missing artwork.
When it comes to
restitution, she said, “it’s a hard issue.”
“Here are innocent people who
were dehumanized, and here is their artwork,” she said. “It’s just an amazing