Buried but not lost

Looted Nazi art on display at the Israel Museum.

Jean Journet, a travelling preacher who roamed Europe and Texas spreading the theories of Charles Fourier, an utopian socialist thinker in a painting by Gustave Courbeth. Looted by the Nazis, the painting is now on display at the Israel Museum (photo credit: MICK VINCENZ © KUNSTMUSEUM BERN UND KUNST – UND AUSSTELLUNGSHALLE DER BUNDESREPUBLIK DEUTSCHLAND GMB)
Jean Journet, a travelling preacher who roamed Europe and Texas spreading the theories of Charles Fourier, an utopian socialist thinker in a painting by Gustave Courbeth. Looted by the Nazis, the painting is now on display at the Israel Museum
Agatha Christie would have licked her lips and, no doubt, rustled up yet another nail-biting, knuckle-gnawing whodunit par excellence out of this real-life story. The tale in question concerns the so-called Gurlitt Collection, a hundred or so representatives of which are currently on show at the Israel Museum.
Around seven years ago, the art world was all agog when news of the discovery of a veritable treasure trove of valuable World War II-related artwork came to light. The precious works were found in Munich, by chance, at the home of a certain Cornelius Gurlitt, who at the time was described as a “haunted white-haired recluse.” Naturally, there is a strong Holocaust element to it, too.
The impressive horde – all told there were close to 1,500 works said to be worth in excess of a billion euros – was amassed by Hildebrand Gurlitt, father of the above Munich resident, a respected member of the art fraternity who was said to be “a Nazi German art historian, art gallery director and, following Hitler’s rise to power, Nazi-associated art dealer and war profiteer, who traded in ‘degenerate art’ during the Nazi era.”
The category, coined by the Nazi regime (“entartete kunst” in German), referred to basically anything that was not in line with the Aryan way of thinking. That, naturally, included works created by non-desirables, such as Jews or blacks, and anything deemed to “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.”
An exhibition of the said taboo art ran, in Munich, from July 19 to November 30, 1937, attracting a whopping million visitors in the first six weeks alone, who, presumably, wanted to see what the fuss was all about – and probably, to know what to avoid in the future.
Much of the exhibited artwork had been confiscated or bought under duress from Jews, by dealers appointed for the purpose by the Nazis. Gurlitt played a central role in this. As such, he acquired works of art, primarily in Nazi-occupied France, some of which were stolen from their original Jewish owners. How many exactly is a moot point, and one that is the subject of protracted and ongoing painstaking research.
The spread at the Israel Museum – which opened for public viewing on September 27 and will run through to January 15 – is called Fateful Choices, and epexegetically subtitled Art from the Gurlitt Trove. The Gurlitt in question is Cornelius, son of the aforementioned World War II Nazi regime-sanctioned dealer.
FATEFUL CHOICES explores the amazing cache, and showcases the diverse range of works Hildebrand acquired throughout his professional career. Paintings, drawings and prints by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Courbet, Otto Dix, Oskar Kokoschka, Georg Grosz, and Max Beckmann, to mention but a few, are displayed alongside Dutch still life paintings from the 17th century, Rococo pastels from the 18th century, and 19th century portraits. The provenance research on the art trove is ongoing, and with it the search for the rightful owners of the works.
The exhibition here is curated by Shlomit Steinberg, and designed by Lisa Blechman, in collaboration with the Kunstmuseum in Bern. Steinberg has been on board for some time and – long years of service at the Israel Museum, and numerous projects under her belt notwithstanding – she says this venture is a standout for her.
“I was recruited for this back in 2014,” she explains. “I received a phone call from someone called Bobby Brown, from Project HEART [Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce] of the Jewish Agency. He said they’d found this treasure in Munich, and that they wanted the committee that was going to support the research on the provenance of the works – because there were grave suspicions that the works were stolen from Jews – to have a representative from Israel.” In fact, there are two Israelis on the important advisory body, with Steinberg suggesting the addition of Yehudit Shendar, then senior art curator and deputy director of the Museums Division at Yad Vashem.
At the time, it was all a bit hush-hush, and a meeting was duly arranged with Brown at a Jerusalem hotel – to iron out any bumps on the road to the committee kickoff, and ensure that everyone was on the same page. “Bobby seated us behind a pillar in a side niche and told us, 'You are new generation of monument men and women,’” referencing the then-new war film directed by George Clooney, The Monuments Men. The movie tells the story of an undercover Allied group from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, entrusted with the task of finding and salvaging pieces of art and other culturally important items before the Nazis would destroy or steal them, while World War II was still raging.
Steinberg and Shendar were not alone, and they were called to a gathering in Munich where they met up with the other members of the task force: from Austria, Hungary, the United States, France and Germany. The personnel would change several times over the years, with a Polish representative joining the sleuthing research fray at some stage.
While Steinberg had already accrued a wealth of experience in the field of Jewish and Israeli art, she felt a little like a fish out of water in her Gurlitt Collection-related role. “After a year of feeling marginalized in the project, we sat there in the office of the German deputy minister of culture – and he was concerned about the slow progress being made, and the growing weight of public opinion following all the media coverage,” she recalls. Steinberg suddenly had a 200-watt light bulb moment. “I don’t know where it came from, but I just said, 'Let’s have an exhibition.' Everyone looked at me amazed and said it was a really shocking idea.”
Undeterred, Steinberg ploughed on. “I told them I thought it was a good idea. They wanted to expose the works; they wanted people to see them. Lostart Deutschland [a website established to register cultural objects that, as a result of persecution under the Nazi dictatorship and World War II, were relocated or seized, especially from Jewish owners] is not exactly the site that the average 80- or 90-year-old Jew drops into every morning,” she adds with abundant understatement. The deputy minister liked the idea, and exhibitions were eventually arranged in Bern – running from November 2017 to March 2018 – Berlin, Bonn and now Jerusalem.
PRESUMABLY, someone is putting their all into a script for a Hollywood blockbuster of this scarcely believable tale. And there is plenty to sink one’s teeth into. The trove was discovered only due to a sharp-eyed customs officer who, coming across Cornelius Gurlitt when the latter was on a train from Germany to Switzerland, noted that the elderly man was unusually fidgety. The official proceeded to question Gurlitt and discovered he was carrying 9,000 euros in cash. That may have been a little unusual, however it was within the legal limit for cash transfers across the border.
Even so, the tax officer notified a superior and, on further examination, Cornelius was found to have no occupation or means of income, so efforts were stepped up to clarify the matter. The investigations eventually led to Gurlitt’s Munich abode where, in February 2012, officials of the Augspurg Prosecutor’s Office entered his apartment and found not records of past sales, but a reported 121 framed and 1,258 unframed works, the major part of the collection inherited from his father. The Los Angeles-based scriptwriter – if indeed one is currently slaving over a sweaty computer keyboard – will also, no doubt, make the most of the fact the Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazi-sanctioned art dealer, was a second-degree “mischling” – a quarter Jewish. That, of course, would have been enough for the Nazis to pack him off to a concentration camp.
Then again, he must have been good at his job: good enough for the Germans to exploit his skills in their efforts to accumulate thousands of “degenerate” artworks that Hitler intended to display at the Führermuseum, which he planned to open in his hometown of Linz in Austria after the war.
Thankfully, that did not happen, and at least some of the precious items Gurlitt Sr. culled by devious means can now be viewed by visitors to the Israel Museum. Hopefully, the provenance professionals will also make inroads, and at least some of the treasures will be restored to their original owners – or to their descendants.
Fateful Choices closes on January 15, 2020. For more information: www.imj.org.il