On Discovering a Multimillion-Dollar Trove of Hitler’s Looted Art in a Munich Apartment

Mary Lane Investigates Germany's Attempt to Hide Art Stolen by Nazis

At around 4 am on Wednesday, November 6, 2013, I was sleeping in a Manhattan hotel when I was awakened by one of my phones for the Wall Street Journal. The night before, I had been covering the annual Impressionist and Modern Art Auction at Christie’s—a night during which dealers, speculators, and private collectors had bought just shy of $144.3 million worth of art in roughly the amount of time it takes to watch a feature film. The auction had included works by artists whose careers I had grown accustomed to analyzing for both their artistic merit and their market value—a cold but critical balance in covering the world’s largest legal but unregulated industry. That night, Christie’s had sold a Vincent van Gogh work on paper for $5.49 million, a Claude Monet for $8.12 million and—its top lot—a portrait by Pablo Picasso of one of his mistresses for $12.2 million.

On the phone, a Europe-based editor told me to return to Berlin immediately. This, he said, was bigger than New York’s November Auction Week, the most lucrative time annually for the global art market.

What exactly was “this,” I asked groggily. Though I was the chief European art reporter, editors had told me to concentrate on New York’s relationship with Europe that week rather than events in Europe itself. My editor told me that Focus magazine, a German cross between America’s Newsweek and People, had just revealed that an octogenarian recluse named Cornelius Gurlitt had been hiding approximately 1,200 works of art in his small Munich apartment—works by the same artists I had just covered at Christie’s.

Focus said that Cornelius had inherited them from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had been one of the main art dealers for the Führermuseum, the museum Adolf Hitler planned to build to house Nazi-approved masterpieces, many looted from the Führer’s victims and from European museums. German government officials had confiscated the trove in early 2012 as part of a never-ending tax investigation. Yet they had concealed the trove’s existence for almost two years.

If the works were real, the collection was clearly worth tens of millions of dollars. There were pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Max Liebermann, and dozens of other artists whose names the German government refused to release. Germany’s hiding of this find represented an egregious violation of the Washington Principles, a set of international regulations agreed to by Germany in 1998 intended to facilitate the return of Nazi-looted property to Hitler’s victims.

The Journal asked me to investigate the case and write a Page One article on the lives of Hildebrand and Cornelius Gurlitt within 72 hours, 10 of which would be consumed by travel. On the airplane, I contemplated the implications this story would have for Germany, the art world, and my career. I dozed in my cramped coach seat, preparing for several nights’ slumber under my desk in the Journal‘s bureau, located across from the German parliament. I had recently turned 26 years old. Little did I know that I was embarking on a five-year project that would confirm that the wounds of World War II were hardly healed and clearly demonstrate that the German government was ill prepared to deal with this problem of international proportions.

*

On November 9, 2013, I published my first Page One article on the Gurlitt family for the Wall Street Journal, focusing on Hildebrand Gurlitt, the man who had been part of the elite group rounding up art across Europe in the 1940s. What I uncovered for that article and over the next several months was so bizarre, so cinematic, that even hardened Manhattan editors expressed astonishment at the Gurlitt family’s history—and consternation at the German government’s blasé response.

Germany’s hiding of this find represented an egregious violation of the Washington Principles, a set of international regulations in 1998 intended to facilitate the return of Nazi-looted property to Hitler’s victims.

In February 2012, Hildebrand’s son, Cornelius Gurlitt, an elderly, reclusive bachelor, had been resting in his apartment in Munich when he heard a sharp rap on the door. Within minutes, German tax investigators raided his house. Cornelius had caught their attention months before while transporting €9,000 in crisp €500 bank notes on a high-speed train from Switzerland. Because this amount was under €10,000, he was not required to declare it, but Cornelius’s use of €500 notes, commonly used for money laundering in Europe, had aroused suspicion.

Raiding Cornelius’ apartment, authorities were astonished to find roughly 1,200 artworks piled up like old newspapers in every nook and cranny. Cornelius had taken one Matisse painting, Woman with a Fan, a portrait of a pale-skinned brunette, and shoved it into a crate of tomatoes. On his living room wall hung Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach, a charming depiction of two equestrians and their horses on sun-dappled sand.

Officials confiscated all of the artworks but did not disclose their existence to the international community. German public servants’ callous lack of transparency with the press and public about an issue as delicate as art looted during the Holocaust was impossible to ignore.

After my New York flight landed in Berlin, I learned that the government’s tax prosecutor, Reinhard Nemetz, had given the government’s one and only press conference about the Gurlitts in a provincial Bavarian town while I and many other journalists were still in transit. He had argued that determining whether these works had been stolen from museums or Jews was not his job; he only aimed to have them appraised to ensure Gurlitt paid taxes.

German officials bucked the question of whether it was ethical to ignore the fact that many of the artworks had probably been looted from museums or Holocaust victims, stating that this was not germane to their predicament. They pointed out in a shockingly tone-deaf manner—echoing the views of many enablers of the Nazis—that their behavior was legally proper. Its morality was irrelevant.

This approach was not the exception among German public servants; it was the rule.

When I contacted federal officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s primary spokesman, they refused to comment or even nominally address the worries of the Jewish community leaders with whom I was in touch, declaring the finding of the largest trove of art belonging to one of Hitler’s henchmen “a local issue.”

The scandal subsequently spilled into the international art world as it became clear that a professor from Berlin’s prestigious Freie Universität was researching the artworks at the government’s behest. Yet the government did not ask her to determine if they were Nazi-looted art but rather to identify them for taxation purposes; this gave credence to the oft-whispered suspicion in the elite art world that German academics were out of touch with research into the cultural consequences of World War II—far more so than their counterparts in the United States or other European nations.

*

Over the next fifteen months, I reported how German officials continued to bungle the confiscation of the Gurlitt art trove. The government consistently refused to release high-resolution images of the artworks, increasing the odds that the grainy photos taken at the press conference—representing less than 1 percent of the total trove—would not be published abroad. This made it difficult for Holocaust survivors and their descendants to prove that the works in Gurlitt’s trove were indeed theirs.

For my subsequent Page One exposés and a flurry of shorter articles for the Journal, I began interviewing and working with two Jewish families of European heritage who immediately identified two paintings that belonged to their ancestors: Matisse’s Woman with a Fan and Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach.

Raiding Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment, German authorities were astonished to find roughly 1,200 artworks piled up like old newspapers in every nook and cranny.

Both families now lived in Manhattan.

The matriarch of the wealthy Rosenbergs, from whom the Nazis had stolen Fan, was Elaine, a steely eyed, tight-lipped octogenarian. Her father-in-law, the art collector and Matisse dealer Paul Rosenberg, had escaped France in the summer of 1941 after the Nazis had invaded his homeland. Remarkably, Rosenberg had preserved proofs of purchase for many of his artworks, including Fan. He learned after the war that the Nazis had stolen that piece and over one hundred others from his bank vault in September 1941, and he had tried in vain to find the artworks until his death in 1959.

The Nazis stole Two Riders from the Toren family. David Toren, a soft-spoken Holocaust and 9/11 survivor, had fled Poland to Sweden as a child on one of the last Kindertransport missions; his parents were murdered at Auschwitz. David and his London-based brother, Peter, were the heirs of Two Riders, which David, a budding equestrian before Hitler’s rise, had long admired before the Nazis stole it.

Upon learning of the Gurlitt art trove, the Rosenbergs and the Torens immediately contacted German officials and provided proof of ownership. The government declined to help. Astoundingly, German law did not require Cornelius Gurlitt to return looted works: Germany had allowed the statute of limitations for those from whom Hitler had stolen art to expire in the 1970s.

Much to the outrage of Israeli and US officials, Angela Merkel’s government remained mum even when Cornelius proudly and publicly declared that he would not return art looted from Jewish Europeans, adding, “No! Never!”

Until his death, Cornelius Gurlitt maintained that his father, Hildebrand, had simply done his job in working for Hitler—a perfectly legal job at that. Yet, in spring 2014, he realized that the revelation of his art hoard had tarnished his family’s reputation. Bowing to pressure from the Justice Ministry in Bavaria—the lone governmental institution in Germany that saw the scandal from a moral perspective—he agreed to return Fan to the Rosenbergs and Two Riders to the Torens, even though he was not legally obligated to do so.

On 6 May 2014, six months after his art trove became public, Cornelius died of heart failure in his bare Munich apartment, which the government had emptied of his secret art stash. Though a tax investigation was now a moot point, Merkel’s government nevertheless declared that protecting the privacy of the deceased Cornelius Gurlitt took precedence over transparency regarding the return of looted art.

On 20 November 2014, I broke the news in the Journal that a small art museum in the Swiss capital of Bern would be taking possession of Gurlitt’s trove. A full year after Cornelius died and roughly five months after the Kunstmuseum Bern accepted the odd bequest, the German government finally chose to return Two Riders to the Torens and Fan to the Rosenbergs.

On 23 June 2015, the Torens sold their treasured painting at a Sotheby’s London auction for $2.95 million, five times the low estimate of $540,000. David and Peter Toren originally planned to keep it, but Peter had recently died and left his share of the painting to multiple heirs, complicating its ownership to the extent that selling it became the only option.

The Rosenbergs had Fan restored and kept it.

*

Despite how scandalously the Gurlitt case had played out, how callous it had made German officials appear, it was clear to me, now an august 27 years old, that the battle to hold “future Gurlitts” accountable was in danger of being forgotten by the same experienced art dealers, collectors, enthusiasts, and newspaper readers who had breathlessly followed the case from fall 2013 to fall 2015.

Astoundingly, German law did not require Cornelius Gurlitt to return looted works: Germany had allowed the statute of limitations for those from whom Hitler had stolen art to expire in the 1970s.

I worried that this was the German government’s hope. The nation’s public servants showed no interest in changing the laws that allowed private citizens to keep Nazi-looted art even when Holocaust survivors and their heirs could prove they were the rightful owners. The federal government had finally set up a provenance research center but did not require government-funded museums to use it to clear their collections.

Unsurprisingly, many did not volunteer to do so.

Moreover, most of these museums still refused to digitize their records, showing when and how they had acquired their collections. Elderly Holocaust survivors and researchers of all ages who desired to access the archives of these institutions would need to book appointments, secure permission from German institutions, and travel to Germany.

The story of art in Germany is vexed, not only because of the theft and damage that occurred during and before the war but because art was central to Hitler’s political project from its inception. The stories of art and Nazism become quickly and inextricably entwined as one looks further back historically.

In contrast to all other Western dictators except Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler was genuinely obsessed with art. His actions fundamentally and permanently altered the West’s cultural landscape. Hitler regarded himself as an artist first and a politician second. He was actively involved in determining what he considered to be ideal Aryan art, while snuffing out the careers—and often the lives—of artists, collectors, or dealers he considered “degenerate.”

Even trapped in the bunker in spring 1945, Hitler had obsessively looked at the model of the Führermuseum that his assistants had brought down to his subterranean kingdom, the halls of which he had decorated with carefully curated artworks. Even as he faced his impending suicide, he still discussed art—his passion since childhood.

Over the past several decades, publishing houses have released thousands of books on Adolf Hitler and World War II. Only a small minority of these focus on the impact of the Third Reich on culture, and a smaller subset still has honed in—as this book does through the story of Hildebrand and Cornelius Gurlitt—on how the complicity of ordinary Europeans enabled the regime to perpetrate its cultural and genocidal annihilation.

The story of art in Germany is vexed, not only because of the theft and damage that occurred during and before the war but because art was central to Hitler’s political project from its inception.

Germany has much to do in terms of saving and restituting Nazi-looted art. Yet the mood and politics of the country in 2019 make it less and less likely that this will happen swiftly or at all in the years ahead. For this reason, historians, Hitler’s victims, and their heirs often refer to “lost” artworks— those still separated from their lawful historical owners following the events in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s—as “Hitler’s Last Hostages.” Because of Germany’s refusal to change the laws that protected the Gurlitt family, were a “new Gurlitt” to appear now, victims of Hitler’s Third Reich would still have no more rights to demand the return of their possessions.

As this book demonstrates, many of Hitler’s Last Hostages have yet to be rescued.

__________________________________

Hitler's Last Hostages by Mary Lane

Excerpted from Hitler’s Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich by Mary Lane. Copyright © Mary Lane 2019. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.

Mary M. Lane
Mary M. Lane
Mary M. Lane (b. 1987) is the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. She is a nonfiction writer and journalist specializing in Western art, Western European history, and anti-Semitism. Lane received one of five Fulbright Journalism Scholarships at 22 years old, gained international recognition as the chief European art reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and published numerous exclusive Page One articles on the art trove of Hildebrand Gurlitt. Since leaving the Journal, Lane has been a European art contributor for the New York Times. She splits her time between Berlin and Virginia.





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