Until recently, German recluse Cornelius Gurlitt has been sitting on a hoard of around 1,500 art works. These include pieces by Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Manet, Matisse and Gauguin amongst others. All the pieces were taken and some stolen, under the directions of the German Nazi regime in World War Two. Now, finally these works are being brought to light and perhaps even returned to their rightful owners.
Up to 2012, Gurlitt was doing ok. He did not appear to have much of a social life, but he had his paintings. Those who knew him said that he treated the paintings as friends. After the death of his father and sister, they were all he had. In a house in Salzburg and a flat in Munich, the paintings lived, gathering dust, some developing mould from the way they were stored. Rather than having them on display, Gurlitt kept them in corners, covered by waste paper, dirt and spider webs. It was not that he did not love them, but they were so numerous he could barely cope with them all.
For years Gurlitt survived, selling a painting only when he was low on money and selling them to an art world which seems to have turned a blind eye to each new arrival on the scene. But these painting all had original homes and owners. Gurlitt’s Jewish father was charged by Adolf Hitler to acquire and sell what was called “degenerate” art in order to fund Nazi plans during the Second World War. Paintings were either seized from Jewish homes or bought outright by families fleeing for their lives.
This is the story of the first piece to be returned, a work by Henri Matisse entitled “Sitting Woman.” The painting was originally owned by a Jewish art collector by the name of Paul Rosenberg. The piece had founds its way into the collection of Hermann Goering, a leading member of the Nazi party, before finally settling amongst Gurlitt’s collection.
Gurlitt was discovered with the stolen art after he was searched during a trip to Switzerland and found to be carrying 9,000 euros, an amount just under the legal limit of prosecution, but enough to raise suspicions. Afterwards, the paintings were seized from Gurlitt’s two properties while he was being investigated for tax evasion.
Initially, reclusive Gurlitt protested the seizure or stealing as he may have seen it, of his art and even filed a complaint to have his property ( as it is seen to be under German law) returned. However, he has since changed his tune, perhaps with his mind to how they were acquired under the Nazi regime and wishes all the pieces to be given back to their rightful owners and immediate heirs.
But although finding the rightful heirs will certainly ease the burden currently around the neck of reclusive Gurlitt, it may prove more difficult than first perceived. Survivors of the time are unlikely to have any records that the paintings were their property, and as most of them were very young children at the time, they perhaps would not recall what a painting looked like that hung in their houses over 70 years ago. Deidre Berger, the director of the Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations, reportedly said that the process could take some time. But she added that every piece of stolen art that could be returned to its rightful owner would be a blow to the Nazi regime era.
By Sara Watson