Shrewd Art Dealer or Nazi Stooge? A 'Decadent Art' Collection Comes to Israel

The Israel Museum is now showing works once owned by Hildebrand Gurlitt, a man who had Jewish roots and an unclear record on how he amassed his collection

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 'Portrait of Two Women,' 1831
Mick Vincenz / Kunstmuseum Bern und Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH

Over seven years ago, in a simple building in Munich’s Schwabing quarter, the German tax authorities found a valuable treasure: 1,200 works of art – paintings, drawings, prints and small sculptures from various periods. Two years later they found hundreds more works from the same collection in a house in Salzburg, Austria. All told, 1,590 items were found at the two sites, in poor storage conditions.

The owner of the huge collection – which included works by artists such as Courbet, Munk, Renoir, Dix, Rodin and Pissarro – was Cornelius Gurlitt. The investigation at his home took place after he was noticed on a train from Zurich to Munich with large wads of cash.

Gurlitt died a lonely old man about two years after the discovery and its bequest to the art museum in the Swiss capital Bern, a city where he had fond childhood memories. Gurlitt inherited the works from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, who died in 1956 in a traffic accident at 61.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was an art collector and dealer active in Germany and throughout Europe from 1925 until his death. Nearly two years passed from the discovery of the collection in February 2012 until newspapers reported on it in November 2013, triggering a wave of articles around the world about the value and uniqueness of the collection. It was only transferred to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern after a legal battle by Gurlitt’s nephews.

“Fateful Choices: Art from the Gurlitt Trove,” an elaborately detailed exhibition at the Israel Museum, September 2019
Elie Posner/Israel Museum

Gurlitt’s story is told, like a thriller, by Shlomit Steinberg, the senior curator of European art at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. In addition to her preoccupation in recent years with the Old Masters, she’s involved in a study of works that may have been looted in the Holocaust. In 2014, as one of the Israeli representatives, she joined the international committee that investigated the Gurlitt collection.

Now until January 24, 100 items from the collection will be on display at the Israel Museum in the exhibition “Fateful Choices: Art from the Gurlitt Trove.” The task force Steinberg took part in researched the provenance of the works. Were they looted from Jewish collectors? Confiscated because they belonged to what the Nazis considered decadent art? Or did Gurlitt acquire them legitimately from collectors?

In recent years a small number of legal heirs to the works have been found. For example, the painting “Two Riders on the Beach” by Max Liebermann was returned to the heirs of David Friedman, who was a Jewish businessman and art collector from Breslau (today Wroclaw in Poland). Before his death in 1942, the Nazis forced him to sell his collection, which included Lieberman’s painting. But the work “Seated Woman” by Henri Matisse, which was owned by gallery owner Paul Rosenberg in Paris, was returned to his heirs.

The task force was criticized for finding very few heirs. “The looted treasures must not remain hidden assets subject to the failures of the committee members,” Israel Peleg, director of the Tel Aviv-based Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, told Haaretz. German Culture Minister Monika Grütters rejected the criticism and said the committee’s challenge was complex because of complicated laws, technical obstacles and the need to cooperate with international bodies.

A "Mischling"

Steinberg and Lucas Bachar, who has taken part in previous exhibitions about Hildebrand Gurlitt, tell about his life, which has all the elements of a good story. He experienced two world wars and was what the Nazis called a Mischling of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry. He enjoyed the best of both worlds, made contacts and amassed a fortune.

Gurlitt was born in 1895 in Dresden to a respected and educated family. His father was an architect and art historian. One of his grandfathers was a Danish-German landscape artist.

Gustave Courbet, 'Portrait of Monsieur Jean Journet,' ca 1850, from the 'Gurlitt Art Trove' exhibition at the Israel Museum, September 2019.
Mick Vincenz / Kunstmuseum Bern und Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH

Gurlitt, who grew up a Christian, had Jewish roots – his paternal grandmother was the daughter of a Jewish family from Königsberg. He wasn’t overly concerned about his Jewish ancestry until 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws defined him as a second-degree Mischling. His father,  who would die in 1938, was horrified by his new status and wrote to his sister: “Suddenly I’m a member of a family plagued by Jews.”

After World War I, Gurlitt studied art history. In 1925 he was appointed the director of the King Albert Museum in Saxony. He sought to turn the insititution, with its disorganized and conservative collection, into a contemporary and important museum, as in Berlin.

Gurlitt thus designed the place along clear and modern lines. He got businessmen to help expand the collection, including Zalman Schocken, who had a large collection. But Gurlitt’s modern approach aroused the opposition of the growing Nazi movement; he was fired and returned to Dresden.

In the early ‘30s he found a job as director of the Hamburg Art Association. When he violated the order to fly the Nazi flag on May 1 at all public buildings, he was forced to leave his job. He then became more active as an art dealer and started a gallery registered in 1937 in the name of his wife, who had no Jewish ancestry.

Gurlitt was a seasoned dealer with excellent taste, and in those years he collected what the Nazis called decadent art. He sold the works outside Germany and secretly inside Germany, and also kept some of them.

Despite being a victim of the anti-Jewish policy, he exploited the treatment of Jews and their need for cash to acquire works cheaply. In December 1938 he bought nine drawings by a German artist from Ernst Julius Wolfsohn, director of the Jewish hospital in Hamburg, who desperately needed cash, and sold them at a huge profit to one of his wealthiest clients.

The Nazis collected 21,000 works defined as decadent art from museums throughout the Reich. They burned some, and the rest they sent to the Decadent Art Exhibition that traveled throughout Germany and Austria. When the exhibition finished in 1941, Gurlitt and three others received permission to buy “decadent” works and sell them for foreign currency outside Germany. He bought 3,879 works, drawings and mainly prints for Swiss francs.

Otto Dix (1891-1969), 'Self-Portrait (With Cigarette),' Undated
Markus Mühlheim / Kunstmuseum Bern / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

The peak of his relations with the Nazis came when he was hired as a buyer for the planned Führermuseum – what would have been a huge art museum in Linz, Austria. This position enabled Gurlitt to roam freely throughout war-torn Europe. He eventually ended up in Dresden.

He also maintained relations with Jews. For example, in 1945 he received a forged Marc Chagall painting, along with a drawing by Picasso, from a man whose wife was Jewish. Gurlitt helped smuggle the wife to Switzerland.

Steinberg says he also sent provisions to the mother of a Jewish art forger. “He sent her packages of food and clothing to the Jewish ghetto in Prague,” Steinberg says, but adds that Gurlitt shouldn’t be considered a Righteous Gentile. “He did his friends a favor. He didn’t endanger his life.”

Toward the end of the war Dresden was bombed and Gurlitt fled with his collection to a castle in the village of Aschbach in western Germany. “But he made a mistake,” Steinberg says. “The Americans had built a displaced persons camp not far from there, and found the collection.”

Gurlitt was interrogated, and his collection was confiscated and examined. He now exploited his grandmother’s Jewish extraction and his love for “decadent” modern art.

Another art dealer, Ingeborg Hartman, with whom he had ties at the start of the war, was also interrogated. She explained how Gurlitt bought works for pennies from Jews who needed the money, and sold them for a healthy profit, and how he bragged about his friendship with high-ranking Nazis like Albert Speer. Despite the suspicions against him, he was acquitted by the Americans in early 1948, and the collection was later returned to him.

Francois Boucher, 'Resting Girl,' Undated
Staatsanwaltschaft Augsburg / Kunstmuseum Bern

Gurlitt died in 1956. His wife moved to Munich with their two children. The family lived from the art collection “under the radar,” as Steinberg puts it. “They apparently sold discreetly, working a lot with gallery owners from Switzerland with whom he had connections. After the death of his widow in 1968 his daughter married and took 22 works with her. His son lived in seclusion and for years nobody knew about the collection's existence.”

Branching out

The exhibition is eclectic – decadent art, classical paintings, Japanese art and paintings of Gurlitt’s family. “We wanted to show how he changed from someone with a very good eye and very shrewd choices, presenting himself as a modern and dynamic person, to a wheeler-dealer dealing with anything possible,” Steinberg says.

While he lived in Paris during World War II, Gurlitt exploited the flourishing market for eclectic acquisitions. For example, he bought the drawing “Resting Girl” by 18th-century French artist Francois Boucher.

“He bought the painting in early 1941 from a non-Jew,” Steinberg says. “The work isn’t suspected to have been looted. Moreover, the collector exploited the fact that prices for art were sky-high and he could get good prices. Collectors could receive good prices for their art, not only in Paris but in Vienna and Brussels as well. But that’s not what they paid Jews who wanted to flee.”

“Self Portrait (With Cigarette)” by Otto Dix, who was defined as a decadent artist, is “one of the outstanding works from the first half of the 20th century that was hiding in the collection,” Steinberg says. It isn’t known how the work reached the Gurlitt collection. It’s first mentioned by the U.S. Army.

Another decadent work in the exhibition, one of the best works of the period that remains in the collection, is “Portrait of Maschka Mueller” by Maschka’s former husband Otto Mueller; the painting is believed to have been finished before 1925. “The portrait is iconic and rare in its placing of blue on blue,” Steinberg says. The picture went through several hands during the Nazi period, and after 1941 returned to Germany to Gurlitt. There are other decadent works that he purchased officially.

Otto Mueller, 'Portrait of Maschka Mueller,' 1924-25
Kunstmuseum Bern

The exhibition is both historical and artistic, Steinberg says. “We tell about the man, who had a complex personality with a distant link to Judaism,” she says.

“It also tells an interesting story about a historical figure during a turbulent period and something interesting about the history of art and how things are suddenly discovered – whether in a private home, or in a small neighborhood on the outskirts of Munich. So many works were discovered, it’s possible that many more works ended up in all kinds of places.”

When asked if the exhibition could awaken potential heirs or people who saw the works in the past, Steinberg says that “it’s possible that there will be people who say ‘I know more about the dealer or the family’ and can enrich our knowledge. That’s also one reason why Switzerland agreed to lend us the collection. They’d be pleased to discover more details. So far only six works have been returned to their owners.”

Ido Bruno, the director of the Israel Museum, is less cautious. “It’s possible that someone will wake up. That’s part of the cooperation. They’ll be happy if the exhibition leads to more information,” he says.

“We have to take into account that few of the works were returned and many are only on paper. And that makes it very hard to prove ownership. Prints have many copies, and many owners didn’t survive and they don’t always have descendants.”

Bruno says that showing the exhibition in Germany and Switzerland is different than showing it in Israel.

“Things are beneath the surface there, because the collection provokes a question of how many other such treasures exist and who abetted that, while we're free from this discussion and that lets us rise above the story of ‘Nazi collaborator,’” he says.

“The question of black and white and Satan and the angels doesn’t exist and we can look at this difficult story in a cleaner way. It’s a personal story of surviving during a tough period.”