Issues of Museum Art and Clear Provenance

6466 words (26 pages) Essay

8th Feb 2020 Arts Reference this

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INTRODUCTION:

Museums have been considered “guardians or ‘keepers’”[1] since they were first developed in the late seventeenth century into what is commonly understood as a museum today.[2] They hold the key into understanding human interactions and development. As spaces of community, their walls hold centuries of knowledge displayed in a way that allows for visual interpretation by the masses. Museums are a meeting space, a neutral ground where individuals of various backgrounds can come together to collaborate and challenge their current understanding of the world they experience. When thinking of museums, people understand the space as a place to “think deeply and to learn.”[3] However, museums also can be the impetus of a grim reality, a reflection into the times humanity has lost itself to the temptations of power. In the past, museums have been exclusionary and a roadblock between objects and people, particularly people who are underrepresented in the majority of museum collections. The selective nature that once consumed museums and those who were able to enjoy what they had to offer based off of their status, still presently pervades the reputation of museums.

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This thesis will discuss the implications of displaying art without a clear provenance, how that affects visitor perception, and what this could mean for the future of provenance research and cultural heritage or property laws. This thesis will also discuss how transparency in museum collections affects visitor understanding of their collection. I will use various examples of museums involved in high-profile cases of collecting looted art, as well as museums who actively contribute to the growing importance of provenance research in their own collections. I will concurrently examine two separate museums, the Kunstmuseum Bern located in Bern, Switzerland and the Kramer Art Museum, located in Champaign, Illinois, who have created exhibitions surrounding the acknowledgement that the art displayed in their exhibitions does not have clear or complete provenance, and the implications of exhibiting this type of work for a public audience.

In the age of complete globalization, how can a museum not become embroiled in public scrutiny if it is discovered to hold art without a clear provenance or that is proven to have been looted, particularly during the Nazi era, which lasted from 1933-1945? With the growing concern of museum collections holding art or artifacts that were stolen through colonization attempts—i.e. Native American artifacts that were never meant for public consumption—it can be seen as problematic to display work that was stolen or sold under false pretenses. The Nazis operated intricate networks of museum professionals, art dealers, art critics, art historians, and others to transfer massive amounts of looted art before, during, and after WWII. Many families and institutions lost precious art that had been in their possession for decades. Present day sensational media stories—like that of the Gurlitt case discussed below and examined through the Kunstmuseum Bern’s multiple exhibitions—has opened up a dialogue in the museum community about stolen art and the importance of provenance research. Museums now have a platform to display art without clear ownership history and explain to visitors why these networks were of such importance to Nazi leaders, as well as to illustrate how art without clear provenance ended up in their permanent collection.

This thesis will argue that if a museum is immediately forthcoming and candid about the art it is choosing to display, while acknowledging their important role as a meeting point for various people and histories, then the problematic aspects of displaying art without clear provenance records are remedied.  This transparency allows for the possibility that the public display can actually assist in completing the proper provenance research. Ultimately, the honesty will create an even more neutral ground to assist museums in moving away from an inherent exclusivity.

Methodology

 Methodologies used in this thesis argument are as follows: interviews, observation, and intensive research of relevant journals, periodicals, and publications. Due to the fact that the two exhibitions I have researched for this thesis have occurred within the last ten years, there are not adequate scholarly sources specifically for the exhibitions besides internet and print sources, and exhibition catalogues. Therefore, in order to accomplish original research for this thesis, interviews of exhibition curators and other relevant individuals, will be the main methodology used for completing adequate research. Observation of the exhibitions will also be used to garner firsthand analysis of the art on display and understand how it is consumed by the public. This will allow for conclusive statements to be deduced in terms of the public’s reaction and how it changes when visitors are made aware of the circumstances surrounding the art on display, specifically that many pieces do not have conclusive provenance records.

 However, I will also complete analysis of provenance resources of various institutions, while relying on the American Alliance of Museums Guide to Provenance Research by Nancy H. Yeide, Konstantin Akinsha and Amy L. Walsh. By using this guide as insight into how museums in the United States should uniformly conduct provenance research, I will argue that provenance research into permanent collections should be more of a priority and if done with transparent guidelines, a tool to avoid legal prosecution when faced with the possibility of possessing art from the Nazi era specifically. Another source of information comes from various law journals and legal sources. Seeing as provenance research into collections mainly occurs as a result from legal action into an individual or an entire institution, many legal-related sources have covered the topic of Nazi-looted art the laws related to various cases. Law journals from both universities and firms have covered the topic, and many call on legal action such as the Washington Principles developed in 1998 or the Terezin Declaration of 2009, to highlight the progress that has been made in terms of restitution, but also to comment on what more can be done to assist in returning the extreme amount of lost art and artifacts from the Nazi Era.

CHAPTER 1:

Overview of Looting of Cultural Property during the Nazi Era

One of the largest transfers of stolen art across country lines was that of the Nazi era, lasting from 1933-1945. Hitler and the National Socialist party used the looting and selling of art and artifacts as a means of manipulation in order to further their heinous propaganda. Hitler was obsessed with purifying the German race, which he saw as superior to all others, and he sought to destroy anything that did not comply with his Aryan vision. A failed artist himself, Hitler attempted to become successful at a time when modern art dominated schools and the market. Seen as a juxtaposition to the Impressionism of the late 19th century, modern art like German Expressionism offered an experimental change at the turn of the century and reached its height during the 1920s. Hitler’s style was antithetical to modernism and his personal paintings reveal his limited talent that lead to his rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. When Hitler gained political power, he sought to eradicate modern art from the world’s top museums, as well as private collections. He also planned to create a museum that would only display the finest examples of pure, Aryan art, at a museum designed to rival the Louvre—the never-realized Führermuseum, in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria.

Hitler’s popularity rose at a time when Germans were experiencing feelings of “bitter resentment of German defeat”[4] endured after World War I. The economy took a severe hit, people were searching for jobs and ways to rebuild after the destruction of the war, and many Germans were angry with their government. Hitler and other Germans began to rely even more heavily on a “biopolitical government”[5] that developed during the late 19th century known as Pan-Germanism, “one of the immediate forerunners of Nazism”[6] and which rooted its ideology in the success of a government system by the unification of a strong, singular race. Prior to World War I and “Hitler’s ascendency in 1933,” Pan-Germanism developed based off of “the ambition…to support all members of the German Volk [people] by establishing a pan-German state.”[7] Due to the aspiration of unification of all Germanic peoples across the European continent, an aversion to those who did not seemingly fall under the racist definition of the “white race”[8] grew and “race, seemingly rooted in biological fact, became the predominant definition of the population of the future pan-German state.”[9]

Hitler used the growing discourse on Pan-Germanism as part of his campaign, and also incorporated this racist ideology into his operation on purifying the cultural affairs of Germany, these affairs mainly being the display and consumption of art and artifacts that represented a purified Aryan race. He was determined to make Linz the new cultural capital of the world and the catalyst of definitive high art and society. Hitler was not part of the upper class during his upbringing, he was rejected from the Academy twice, and he used his anger to rally Germans who felt overcome by the events of World War I and were anxious for an immediate change to their current realities. Hitler and his followers, eventually high-ranking Nazi officials, were not sophisticated or experienced in the arts, but Hitler’s campaign created an entire new system or network of individuals eager to appear cultured in this new wave of German aristocracy. Hitler’s extreme obsession with purification ended in horrific events and many innocent people died, but he also attempted to usurp the art historical canon, by declaring his definition of art as the impetus of pan-German culture.

During World War II, it is estimated that over 650,000 works of art were stolen from either museums, galleries, or private collections and distributed over Europe and the United States to help fund the Nazi war effort.[10] A vast amount of these looted pieces either remain missing or have been destroyed. Restitution efforts began immediately after the war and still continue today, however, the amount of art still missing far exceeds the amount that has been returned to the rightful owner or heirs. The art still missing is “sometimes regarded as the last prisoners of wars” and restitution attempts “symbolizes the battle for remembering and reconstructing stolen lives of individuals and communities.”[11] Since the end of the war, there have been countless examples of found art in various museums or galleries across the world, many times with the museum not knowing that they held stolen artwork in their permanent collection. Due to the fact that museums are often regarded as “arenas in which truth telling, memory, and histories are tested and contested,”[12] when Nazi-looted art is recovered as part of their collection, the media and the general public are quick to assume involvement in some type of shady proceedings between the museum and entities involved with the Nazis. Yet, following the end of the war, art that belonged to victims of the Holocaust had been spread so far around the world, sold for inexpensive prices and gifted to museums by collectors, that museums either accepted a donation or made purchases in good faith, not knowing the complete ownership history.

The rapid transfer of art with incomplete provenance makes locating the existing amount of stolen art extremely difficult. A very public case from 2004, Maria Altmann v. the Republic of Austria, became the subject of a major Hollywood film, books, and documentaries as one of the most high-profile legal proceedings involving an heir to artwork stolen by the Nazis and a museum who, to their knowledge, acquired the piece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt, with a clean conscience. Although, most legal proceedings involving similar circumstances do not become as consumed by the media. That is, until the discovery of what has come to be known as the Gurlitt cache in Munich in 2012, which I will discuss further in this thesis. There is a definite growing interest in Nazi-looted art and the reasoning behind why Hitler used art as a demonstration of power in his political agenda. Films like The Monuments Men (2014) and Woman in Gold (2015), based off of the Maria Altmann case, have left the general public consumed in the dramatic efforts to restitute the tangible assets left behind by victims of the Holocaust. There is still vast amounts of work and research to be done in order to track down missing art and artifacts lost during the Nazi era. Nonetheless, the lengths at which Hitler and the Nazis went to in order to conceal the looted art has left many promising trails at a dead end with no answer in sight.

Nazi Networks

To understand the immense amount of transfers of art between individuals across country lines before, during, and after World War II by those involved in some way with the Nazi ideology, it is interesting to consider the phenomenon of Actor Network Theory, or ANT. The networks of people involved in these transfers becomes complicated as not all those involved were implicated by war crimes following the end of WWII. Even today the sheer number of individuals involved in transporting art or other cultural property is not fully understood by researchers, and perhaps the entire truth of those involved may not ever be revealed. The grandiose nature of people willing to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by their employers in order to maintain some type of professionality during WWII is cause for researchers to analyze how in depth the networks of individuals—whether that be art dealers, art historians, professors, or museum officials—were during the Nazi era. ANT is a psychological theory that has been largely covered by the philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist Bruno Latour. Latour describes ANT as “a narrative or a description or a preposition where all actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation.”[13] The points which Latour mentions are meant to be thought of as the networks that connect individuals, and these individuals are acting on the network through their own will. They are all connected by various events—or other individuals—which are in turn affected by each other’s actions.

Latour is certain to imply that the networks associated with ANT are not what is commonly thought of when one thinks of the word network, such as the concept of a highway or train system. Instead, “network is an expression to check how much energy, movement, and specificity our own reports are able to capture. Network is a concept, not a thing out there. It is a tool to help describe something, not what is being described.”[14] The idea that the network in question forms because of common actions and not an actual, agreed upon, understood physical network can help explain how so many museum professionals, art historians, art dealers, etc. become entangled in Nazi war efforts. Even before the outbreak of WWII, the transfers of art through these rapidly forming networks laid the groundwork for individuals to come into contact with one another. Perhaps individuals did not entirely agree with Nazi ideologies but having the common ground of hopes for success as a professional in the art world lead to the creation of art transferring networks that Nazi officials used to their advantage and advertised as a way for those involved to remain relevant even after the end of the war.

“Relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties.”[15] The ever-changing nature of the networks, mainly with who was involved and how Nazi officials created actual positions within the hierarchy to make buying and selling art part of their war efforts could help explain how the list of who exactly was involved in the transfer of art is so convoluted and has resulted in artwork still missing today. The fact that Nazi officials essentially legitimized the looting they were doing by creating laws, such as the Degenerate Art Law, within their regime and buying and selling art to institutions outside of Germany (like in the United States) aided in cementing these networks even further. Described as “ethically questionable manner,”[16] museum directors in the U.S. inadvertently assisted with Nazi war efforts by buying the degenerate art that German art dealers were beginning to sell in the early 1930s. There are records of Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 1929-1943, buying the art from the “Nazi purges,” sending “desperately needed foreign currency to the Nazi state.”[17]

By purchasing the art that was removed from German private collections and public institutions—possibly under duress—museum officials in the United States were unwittingly assisting in the growth and strength of art dealer networks under the Nazi regime. To put in perspective the complexity of one small connection in these networks is an excerpt from an essay by Jonathan Petropoulos, a professor of art history and well-known expert on Nazi-looted art:

“…Barr and other American museum directors provided critical financial support to the Nazi regime in the late 1930s. The chain of this foreign currency went from Barr and MoMA to the émigré art dealer Curt Valentin, who had established a gallery in Manhattan selling the purged ‘degenerate’ works; to Valentin’s partner in Berlin, Karl Buchholz, who had a thriving business in modern art; to the Reich Propaganda Ministry, which oversaw the liquidation program; to the Reichsbank. Barr and Valentin became especially close, with the MoMA director writing to the FBI during the war, vouching for the dealer.”[18]

 

There are clear and intricate levels of connections between the purchaser and the final location of the funds used to buy the degenerate art, and this example is only one of many connections or networks that were formed with art institutions and private collectors outside of Germany before, during and after the war, with the networks perhaps becoming even stronger in the years following WWII. The stronger networks were in part because of the nearly impossible to track systems of individuals involved, but also due to steps taken by Hitler and high-ranking Nazi officials to create advantages for themselves on all sides through creation of laws.

The Degenerate Art Law, enacted on May 31, 1938, by Hitler after meeting with the art dealer Karl Haberstock—who would later sell works to both Hitler and Hermann Göring—made the selling off of “degenerate art from German state collections” [19] legal under the Nazi control. This law also aided in “new owners having good title today”[20] which adds to the growing list of factors as to why locating looted art from the Nazi era extremely difficult, as well as understanding why complicit art dealers may not have reaped as extreme consequences as high-ranking Nazi officials. Hitler was interested in creating a way for eradicating institutions of degenerate art more useful to the Nazi war efforts, and this law was created with “highly anti-Semitic formulations and cut from the same cloth as the Degenerate Art exhibition.”[21] With the new Degenerate Art Law in-tact, many dealers began to understand the metaphorical loopholes that were being created for Hitler and the Nazis to benefit on all accounts from looting, or “liquidating”[22], the degenerate art, as well as the art seen as Germanic, thus meant to be returned to the home country.

Latour states, “to delineate a group, no matter if it has to be created from scratch or simply refreshed, you have to have spokespersons which ‘speak for’ the group existence…defining who they are, what they should be, and what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and…measuring up one definition against all others.”[23] The individuals involved in the transfer of art and artifacts from other institutions or private collections perhaps hid behind these spokespersons of the network—names that are now widespread today as being involved such as the art dealers Karl Haberstock (1878-1956), Bruno Lohse (1911-2007), and now, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956), so that they would not be apprehended. Many art dealers escaped heavy persecution following the end of World War II; the dealer Bruno Lohse spent only two years in a French prison for his complicity with the Nazis and was able to recreate his career after his release, working as an art “adviser” since he did not go through the “denazification” process that many other art dealers. [24] Other dealers like Hildebrand Gurlitt completed this process, which consisted of investigation and questioning in order to assure the Allies that they were not actually ideologically involved with heinous crimes the Nazis committed. Gurlitt even called on his Jewish ancestry while going through the denazification process, something that he tried to diminish while working as one of the four official art dealers for the Nazis. He also tried to make his position as an official art dealer not as advantageous as it appeared while he was on house arrest, telling the Americans that he was never involved in the art transfers from Paris, and that he had only briefly met Bruno Lohse once. This, of course, would have been impossible seeing as Gurlitt was tasked with getting art from the “ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) art plundering headquarters in Paris”[25] (which Lohse was in charge of) for Hitler’s Führermuseum. He also made sure to note that he had actually “only met Lohse once” and that “he was never in the ERR facility.”[26]  This only went over well for Gurlitt with the Monuments Men, as Lohse was “imprisoned at the time and deeply implicated in the Nazis’ art-plundering program.”[27] 

However, a growing question remains—one that has been extensively covered by the professor and well-known experts on Nazi-looted art, Jonathan Petropoulos—and that is how were these networks of art dealers working for the Nazis formed and why did these dealers become involved with a political ideology that had such immoral and senseless values at its core? It is difficult to come to a common consensus as to why so many well-educated, generally respected, seemingly accepting men and a few women became embroiled in the “Nazi leaders’ art policies.”[28]

Hildebrand Gurlitt: How Did an Inconspicuous Art Dealer Evade Authorities, amass one of the Largest Collections of Art during the Nazi Era, and Keep it Hidden for over 60 years?

 

A special exception to most cases of Nazi-looted art found in museum collections is the 2012 discovery of over 1,400 artworks found hidden in file cabinets, hung on the walls, and stuffed in drawers of both the Munich apartment and Salzburg, Austria residence of reclusive art collector, Cornelius Gurlitt (1932-2014).[29] The case in point, has come to be known as the Gurlitt trove, and was thrust into the public eye after a small German periodical, Focus, reported on the story in 2013 after learning about Cornelius’ arrest for suspicion of tax evasion, a full year after the initial discovery by German authorities. The artworks in question were compiled by Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer and former museum director who became involved with the Nazis during the 1930s. Acting as one of four official Nazi art dealers—along with Karl Buchholz, Ferdinand Möller, and Bernhard Böhmer—Gurlitt became involved in a tight-knit web of art collectors, dealers, professors, and Nazi officials working to achieve Hitler’s agenda. How did Gurlitt become involved with Hitler and the Nazis and how was he able to acquire artwork for his own collection? While buying and selling art that funded the Nazi war efforts, along with also riding German museums and galleries of degenerate art, Gurlitt, as well as the other art dealers, was able to purchase art for his own collection. The twist to this is that Gurlitt secretly preferred the art deemed degenerate, making it extremely easy for him to acquire this art for himself, under the guise of selling it to other collectors or museums outside of Germany.

The art found in the trove is a testament to Gurlitt’s taste, and his upbringing in the Dresden art scene that was immersed in the modern art of the early 20th century. His father, Cornelius Gurlitt, Sr. (1850-1938), was an art historian in the Dresden art community and taught at the Technical University. He even instructed Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at one point.[30] Hildebrand’s cousin, Wolfgang Gurlitt (1888-1965), was an art dealer and his uncle, Fritz Gurlitt (1854-1893), was a gallery owner and art dealer in Berlin who represented artists like Max Liebermann (whose work was found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment), Wilhelm Liebel, and Franz Skarbina. Although not directly involved in the arts, Hildebrand’s mother, Marie (1859-1949), favored artist movements such as Die Brücke. The arts were part of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s ancestry, and he desperately wanted to continue the legacy of his father as a successful art historian and—eventually—a respected museum director. While he was the director of first the King Albert Museum in Zwickau, Germany (1925 to 1930), and later the Kunstverein in Hamburg (1930 to 1933), he had hopes of leading institutions in either Berlin or Munich. However, his dreams were never realized as he was eventually ousted for continuing to display modernist German art.[31]

There is also the fact that Gurlitt had Jewish ancestry (his maternal grandmother was Jewish), which would leave him vulnerable to the growing hostility displayed by the National Socialist party. Yet, he was able to befriend important people like Hermann Voss and Kurt Kirchbach, a German industrialist who manufactured brakes for every automotive company in Germany during the 1920s whose relationships would assist Gurlitt in avoiding persecution for his background. After Gurlitt’s dismissal from the King Albert Museum, Kirchbach steadily helped him climb ranks as an art dealer, hiring him to compile an extensive photography collection, which included work by Man Ray, El Lissitzky, Edward Weston, László Maholy-Nagy, Umbo, and Albert Renger-Patzsch.[32] Gurlitt’s friendship with Kirchbach, who was undoubtedly seen as an important asset to German war vehicles, and Gurlitt’s knowledge as an art historian would be deemed too valuable, even though he was “classed as a second-degree Mischling.”[33] Gurlitt was careful to never publicly reveal his involvement with the National Socialist party. He secretly denounced Hitler to close friends and family while signing documents with “Heil, Hitler!” to appear complacent with the ideology of his contemporaries.[34] Perhaps he knew the implications of becoming involved with an over-zealous political regime yet knew that it would allow him to escape a bleaker fate while providing a means of building his longed-for reputation in the art market.[35]  

Between 1939 and 1945, Gurlitt bought and sold 19th century German art to Nazi officials like Albert Speer and Hermann Göring, while secretly plundering private collections and galleries of art deemed degenerate by his employers. Gurlitt attained sufficient business power within the ranks of Nazi bureaucracy that he was able to “write his own travel authorization and use the railways to ship artwork” anywhere in Germany.[36] Gurlitt’s main area of work was in France, following its surrender to Germany in 1940. There, he was tasked with absolving French museums of miscreant art and sending back qualified examples of Aryan art to Germany, and later, buying art directly for Hitler and Linz. The art he purchased in France was sent to German museums to “fill gaps . . . left by the elimination of modern art.”[37] Works by modern artists like Kirchner, Matisse, and Kollwitz were selling for extremely discounted prices. Gurlitt was able to acquire these pieces at low costs and ship them back to his home in Dresden on his own time, without receipts and without ensuring a credible provenance. Gurlitt knew the true reason behind why this art was suddenly available and why it was so inexpensive, yet he was able to “reason away any moral dilemmas that may have troubled him,” [38] as this was an opportunity to grow his own collection, consolidate his status as an art dealer, and repair his family’s name after it had been tarnished by his Jewish heritage.

Gurlitt had a history of saving art as a German Monuments Man during World War I[39], and although he knew that the art he was dealing in and purchasing often came from private collections of Jews deported to concentration camps, he was also a firm supporter of Pan-Germanism, which campaigned for the unity of all Germanic peoples as the superior race.[40] Indeed, he was Jewish, but he was first and foremost a German bringing this art back to his country while covertly supporting his own goals and grooming his ego.[41] After the war, Gurlitt relied on his previously denounced Jewish heritage when he convinced the American Monuments Men, specifically his first interrogator, Dwight McKay, that he was forced into conspiring with the Nazis because of his background in art history and museums.[42] According to Gurlitt, had he not collaborated with the Nazis, he would have faced a much more grim outcome. Gurlitt duped the Allied Monuments Men into believing that the art they seized—most of which was found in 2012, split between his son’s Munich apartment and the Salzburg property—was rightfully his, and that he and his family were merely the victims of the Nazis heinous war crimes. He even convinced his interrogators that the paperwork proving his ownership of the art was destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden. This was all a lie, of course, as Gurlitt was able to safely remove his family, his possessions, and any other important documents to a nearby farmland before the allied air raid took place.

Gurlitt continued to practice in art dealing until he died in a car accident in 1956 at the age of 61. There is scant information regarding what happened to his wife, Helene, and their two children, Renate and Cornelius, from the time period spanning Gurlitt’s death up until Cornelius’ arrest. Gurlitt bequeathed the entirety of his life’s work to his son, who occasionally sold pieces when he needed the money and maintained a secretive lifestyle, one in which he never even opened a German bank account.[43] There are speculations that he had secret bank accounts in Switzerland and even registered businesses in his wife Helene’s name so that he could remain in control of his guarded dealings.[44] Cornelius Gurlitt was described as a reclusive man by the various news outlets who covered the story, in particular by one magazine, Der Spiegel, who interviewed Cornelius during the height of the revealing news stories. He believed the art in his father’s collection belonged to him and his family.[45] 


[1] Edward P. Alexander, Mary Alexander, Juilee Decker, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 10.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] Ibid, 10.

[4] Kim Su Rasmussen, “Foucault’s Genealogy of Racism” Theory, Culture & Society 28 (2011): 44.

[5] Ibid, 41.

[6] Ibid, 42.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 44.

[9] Ibid, 42.

[10] Hili Perlson, “Hildebrand Gurlitt Built a Brilliant Trove of Art under the Nazis. Two New Exhibitions Show His Taste, and His Duplicity,” Artnet News, November 3, 2017. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/gurlitt-trove-bern-bonn-shows-1137587

[11] Andreas Huyssen, Anson Rabinbach, and Avinoam Shalem, “Nazi-Looted Art and Its Legacies: Introduction,” New German Critique 130 (2017): 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 128.

[14] Ibid, 131.

[15] Ibid, 28.

[16] Jonathan Petropoulos, “Five Uncomfortable and Difficult Topics Relating to the Restitution of Nazi-Looted Art,” New German Critique 130 (2017): 137.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 138.

[19] Jonathan Petropoulos, “Art Dealer Networks in the Third Reich and in the Postwar Period,” Journal of Contemporary History 52 (2017): 548.

[20] Petropoulos, “Five Uncomfortable and Difficult Topics,” 135.

[21] Ibid, 136.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Latour, 31.

[24] Jonathan Petropoulos, “Inside the Secret Market for Nazi-Looted Art,” ARTnews, January 29, 2014.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Jonathan Petropoulos, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 2.

[29] Sophie Gilbert, “The Persistent Crime of Nazi-Looted Art,” The Atlantic, March 11, 2018.

From this point in the paper, I will refer to Cornelius Gurlitt by his first name.

[30] Michael Kimmelman, “The Void at the Heart of ‘Gurlitt: Status Report,” New York Times, November 19, 2017.

[31] German Lost Art Database, “Gurlitt, Hildebrand: 1895-1956,”2018.

[32] Susan Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 132.

Hildebrand and his son, Cornelius, both gained notorieties following the 2012 discovery of the Gurlitt trove. Due to needing to mention both men several times, I will refer to Hildebrand Gurlitt by his last name, and Cornelius by his first name, in order to not confuse the two.

[33] Ibid, 174.

[34] Ibid, 209.

[35] Ibid, 271.

[36] Ibid, 12.

[37] Michael Kimmelman, “The Void at the Heart of ‘Gurlitt: Status Report,” New York Times, November 19, 2017.

[38] Susan Ronald, “Hildebrand Gurlitt and the Nazis Looting of Europe’s Treasures,” The History Reader: Dispatches in History from St. Martin’s Press, September 15, 2015.

[39] Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief, 57.

Hildebrand was a Monuments Man for Germany during World War I, precisely during 1916, until he was injured and did not return to the front lines of the war.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief, 268.

[43] Ronald, “Hildebrand Gurlitt and the Nazis Looting of Europe’s Treasures.”

[44] Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief, 209.

[45] Özlem Gezer, “Interview with a Phantom: Cornelius Gurlitt Shares His Secrets,” Der Spiegel, November 17, 2013.

INTRODUCTION:

Museums have been considered “guardians or ‘keepers’”[1] since they were first developed in the late seventeenth century into what is commonly understood as a museum today.[2] They hold the key into understanding human interactions and development. As spaces of community, their walls hold centuries of knowledge displayed in a way that allows for visual interpretation by the masses. Museums are a meeting space, a neutral ground where individuals of various backgrounds can come together to collaborate and challenge their current understanding of the world they experience. When thinking of museums, people understand the space as a place to “think deeply and to learn.”[3] However, museums also can be the impetus of a grim reality, a reflection into the times humanity has lost itself to the temptations of power. In the past, museums have been exclusionary and a roadblock between objects and people, particularly people who are underrepresented in the majority of museum collections. The selective nature that once consumed museums and those who were able to enjoy what they had to offer based off of their status, still presently pervades the reputation of museums.

This thesis will discuss the implications of displaying art without a clear provenance, how that affects visitor perception, and what this could mean for the future of provenance research and cultural heritage or property laws. This thesis will also discuss how transparency in museum collections affects visitor understanding of their collection. I will use various examples of museums involved in high-profile cases of collecting looted art, as well as museums who actively contribute to the growing importance of provenance research in their own collections. I will concurrently examine two separate museums, the Kunstmuseum Bern located in Bern, Switzerland and the Kramer Art Museum, located in Champaign, Illinois, who have created exhibitions surrounding the acknowledgement that the art displayed in their exhibitions does not have clear or complete provenance, and the implications of exhibiting this type of work for a public audience.

In the age of complete globalization, how can a museum not become embroiled in public scrutiny if it is discovered to hold art without a clear provenance or that is proven to have been looted, particularly during the Nazi era, which lasted from 1933-1945? With the growing concern of museum collections holding art or artifacts that were stolen through colonization attempts—i.e. Native American artifacts that were never meant for public consumption—it can be seen as problematic to display work that was stolen or sold under false pretenses. The Nazis operated intricate networks of museum professionals, art dealers, art critics, art historians, and others to transfer massive amounts of looted art before, during, and after WWII. Many families and institutions lost precious art that had been in their possession for decades. Present day sensational media stories—like that of the Gurlitt case discussed below and examined through the Kunstmuseum Bern’s multiple exhibitions—has opened up a dialogue in the museum community about stolen art and the importance of provenance research. Museums now have a platform to display art without clear ownership history and explain to visitors why these networks were of such importance to Nazi leaders, as well as to illustrate how art without clear provenance ended up in their permanent collection.

This thesis will argue that if a museum is immediately forthcoming and candid about the art it is choosing to display, while acknowledging their important role as a meeting point for various people and histories, then the problematic aspects of displaying art without clear provenance records are remedied.  This transparency allows for the possibility that the public display can actually assist in completing the proper provenance research. Ultimately, the honesty will create an even more neutral ground to assist museums in moving away from an inherent exclusivity.

Methodology

 Methodologies used in this thesis argument are as follows: interviews, observation, and intensive research of relevant journals, periodicals, and publications. Due to the fact that the two exhibitions I have researched for this thesis have occurred within the last ten years, there are not adequate scholarly sources specifically for the exhibitions besides internet and print sources, and exhibition catalogues. Therefore, in order to accomplish original research for this thesis, interviews of exhibition curators and other relevant individuals, will be the main methodology used for completing adequate research. Observation of the exhibitions will also be used to garner firsthand analysis of the art on display and understand how it is consumed by the public. This will allow for conclusive statements to be deduced in terms of the public’s reaction and how it changes when visitors are made aware of the circumstances surrounding the art on display, specifically that many pieces do not have conclusive provenance records.

 However, I will also complete analysis of provenance resources of various institutions, while relying on the American Alliance of Museums Guide to Provenance Research by Nancy H. Yeide, Konstantin Akinsha and Amy L. Walsh. By using this guide as insight into how museums in the United States should uniformly conduct provenance research, I will argue that provenance research into permanent collections should be more of a priority and if done with transparent guidelines, a tool to avoid legal prosecution when faced with the possibility of possessing art from the Nazi era specifically. Another source of information comes from various law journals and legal sources. Seeing as provenance research into collections mainly occurs as a result from legal action into an individual or an entire institution, many legal-related sources have covered the topic of Nazi-looted art the laws related to various cases. Law journals from both universities and firms have covered the topic, and many call on legal action such as the Washington Principles developed in 1998 or the Terezin Declaration of 2009, to highlight the progress that has been made in terms of restitution, but also to comment on what more can be done to assist in returning the extreme amount of lost art and artifacts from the Nazi Era.

CHAPTER 1:

Overview of Looting of Cultural Property during the Nazi Era

One of the largest transfers of stolen art across country lines was that of the Nazi era, lasting from 1933-1945. Hitler and the National Socialist party used the looting and selling of art and artifacts as a means of manipulation in order to further their heinous propaganda. Hitler was obsessed with purifying the German race, which he saw as superior to all others, and he sought to destroy anything that did not comply with his Aryan vision. A failed artist himself, Hitler attempted to become successful at a time when modern art dominated schools and the market. Seen as a juxtaposition to the Impressionism of the late 19th century, modern art like German Expressionism offered an experimental change at the turn of the century and reached its height during the 1920s. Hitler’s style was antithetical to modernism and his personal paintings reveal his limited talent that lead to his rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. When Hitler gained political power, he sought to eradicate modern art from the world’s top museums, as well as private collections. He also planned to create a museum that would only display the finest examples of pure, Aryan art, at a museum designed to rival the Louvre—the never-realized Führermuseum, in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria.

Hitler’s popularity rose at a time when Germans were experiencing feelings of “bitter resentment of German defeat”[4] endured after World War I. The economy took a severe hit, people were searching for jobs and ways to rebuild after the destruction of the war, and many Germans were angry with their government. Hitler and other Germans began to rely even more heavily on a “biopolitical government”[5] that developed during the late 19th century known as Pan-Germanism, “one of the immediate forerunners of Nazism”[6] and which rooted its ideology in the success of a government system by the unification of a strong, singular race. Prior to World War I and “Hitler’s ascendency in 1933,” Pan-Germanism developed based off of “the ambition…to support all members of the German Volk [people] by establishing a pan-German state.”[7] Due to the aspiration of unification of all Germanic peoples across the European continent, an aversion to those who did not seemingly fall under the racist definition of the “white race”[8] grew and “race, seemingly rooted in biological fact, became the predominant definition of the population of the future pan-German state.”[9]

Hitler used the growing discourse on Pan-Germanism as part of his campaign, and also incorporated this racist ideology into his operation on purifying the cultural affairs of Germany, these affairs mainly being the display and consumption of art and artifacts that represented a purified Aryan race. He was determined to make Linz the new cultural capital of the world and the catalyst of definitive high art and society. Hitler was not part of the upper class during his upbringing, he was rejected from the Academy twice, and he used his anger to rally Germans who felt overcome by the events of World War I and were anxious for an immediate change to their current realities. Hitler and his followers, eventually high-ranking Nazi officials, were not sophisticated or experienced in the arts, but Hitler’s campaign created an entire new system or network of individuals eager to appear cultured in this new wave of German aristocracy. Hitler’s extreme obsession with purification ended in horrific events and many innocent people died, but he also attempted to usurp the art historical canon, by declaring his definition of art as the impetus of pan-German culture.

During World War II, it is estimated that over 650,000 works of art were stolen from either museums, galleries, or private collections and distributed over Europe and the United States to help fund the Nazi war effort.[10] A vast amount of these looted pieces either remain missing or have been destroyed. Restitution efforts began immediately after the war and still continue today, however, the amount of art still missing far exceeds the amount that has been returned to the rightful owner or heirs. The art still missing is “sometimes regarded as the last prisoners of wars” and restitution attempts “symbolizes the battle for remembering and reconstructing stolen lives of individuals and communities.”[11] Since the end of the war, there have been countless examples of found art in various museums or galleries across the world, many times with the museum not knowing that they held stolen artwork in their permanent collection. Due to the fact that museums are often regarded as “arenas in which truth telling, memory, and histories are tested and contested,”[12] when Nazi-looted art is recovered as part of their collection, the media and the general public are quick to assume involvement in some type of shady proceedings between the museum and entities involved with the Nazis. Yet, following the end of the war, art that belonged to victims of the Holocaust had been spread so far around the world, sold for inexpensive prices and gifted to museums by collectors, that museums either accepted a donation or made purchases in good faith, not knowing the complete ownership history.

The rapid transfer of art with incomplete provenance makes locating the existing amount of stolen art extremely difficult. A very public case from 2004, Maria Altmann v. the Republic of Austria, became the subject of a major Hollywood film, books, and documentaries as one of the most high-profile legal proceedings involving an heir to artwork stolen by the Nazis and a museum who, to their knowledge, acquired the piece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt, with a clean conscience. Although, most legal proceedings involving similar circumstances do not become as consumed by the media. That is, until the discovery of what has come to be known as the Gurlitt cache in Munich in 2012, which I will discuss further in this thesis. There is a definite growing interest in Nazi-looted art and the reasoning behind why Hitler used art as a demonstration of power in his political agenda. Films like The Monuments Men (2014) and Woman in Gold (2015), based off of the Maria Altmann case, have left the general public consumed in the dramatic efforts to restitute the tangible assets left behind by victims of the Holocaust. There is still vast amounts of work and research to be done in order to track down missing art and artifacts lost during the Nazi era. Nonetheless, the lengths at which Hitler and the Nazis went to in order to conceal the looted art has left many promising trails at a dead end with no answer in sight.

Nazi Networks

To understand the immense amount of transfers of art between individuals across country lines before, during, and after World War II by those involved in some way with the Nazi ideology, it is interesting to consider the phenomenon of Actor Network Theory, or ANT. The networks of people involved in these transfers becomes complicated as not all those involved were implicated by war crimes following the end of WWII. Even today the sheer number of individuals involved in transporting art or other cultural property is not fully understood by researchers, and perhaps the entire truth of those involved may not ever be revealed. The grandiose nature of people willing to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by their employers in order to maintain some type of professionality during WWII is cause for researchers to analyze how in depth the networks of individuals—whether that be art dealers, art historians, professors, or museum officials—were during the Nazi era. ANT is a psychological theory that has been largely covered by the philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist Bruno Latour. Latour describes ANT as “a narrative or a description or a preposition where all actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation.”[13] The points which Latour mentions are meant to be thought of as the networks that connect individuals, and these individuals are acting on the network through their own will. They are all connected by various events—or other individuals—which are in turn affected by each other’s actions.

Latour is certain to imply that the networks associated with ANT are not what is commonly thought of when one thinks of the word network, such as the concept of a highway or train system. Instead, “network is an expression to check how much energy, movement, and specificity our own reports are able to capture. Network is a concept, not a thing out there. It is a tool to help describe something, not what is being described.”[14] The idea that the network in question forms because of common actions and not an actual, agreed upon, understood physical network can help explain how so many museum professionals, art historians, art dealers, etc. become entangled in Nazi war efforts. Even before the outbreak of WWII, the transfers of art through these rapidly forming networks laid the groundwork for individuals to come into contact with one another. Perhaps individuals did not entirely agree with Nazi ideologies but having the common ground of hopes for success as a professional in the art world lead to the creation of art transferring networks that Nazi officials used to their advantage and advertised as a way for those involved to remain relevant even after the end of the war.

“Relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties.”[15] The ever-changing nature of the networks, mainly with who was involved and how Nazi officials created actual positions within the hierarchy to make buying and selling art part of their war efforts could help explain how the list of who exactly was involved in the transfer of art is so convoluted and has resulted in artwork still missing today. The fact that Nazi officials essentially legitimized the looting they were doing by creating laws, such as the Degenerate Art Law, within their regime and buying and selling art to institutions outside of Germany (like in the United States) aided in cementing these networks even further. Described as “ethically questionable manner,”[16] museum directors in the U.S. inadvertently assisted with Nazi war efforts by buying the degenerate art that German art dealers were beginning to sell in the early 1930s. There are records of Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 1929-1943, buying the art from the “Nazi purges,” sending “desperately needed foreign currency to the Nazi state.”[17]

By purchasing the art that was removed from German private collections and public institutions—possibly under duress—museum officials in the United States were unwittingly assisting in the growth and strength of art dealer networks under the Nazi regime. To put in perspective the complexity of one small connection in these networks is an excerpt from an essay by Jonathan Petropoulos, a professor of art history and well-known expert on Nazi-looted art:

“…Barr and other American museum directors provided critical financial support to the Nazi regime in the late 1930s. The chain of this foreign currency went from Barr and MoMA to the émigré art dealer Curt Valentin, who had established a gallery in Manhattan selling the purged ‘degenerate’ works; to Valentin’s partner in Berlin, Karl Buchholz, who had a thriving business in modern art; to the Reich Propaganda Ministry, which oversaw the liquidation program; to the Reichsbank. Barr and Valentin became especially close, with the MoMA director writing to the FBI during the war, vouching for the dealer.”[18]

 

There are clear and intricate levels of connections between the purchaser and the final location of the funds used to buy the degenerate art, and this example is only one of many connections or networks that were formed with art institutions and private collectors outside of Germany before, during and after the war, with the networks perhaps becoming even stronger in the years following WWII. The stronger networks were in part because of the nearly impossible to track systems of individuals involved, but also due to steps taken by Hitler and high-ranking Nazi officials to create advantages for themselves on all sides through creation of laws.

The Degenerate Art Law, enacted on May 31, 1938, by Hitler after meeting with the art dealer Karl Haberstock—who would later sell works to both Hitler and Hermann Göring—made the selling off of “degenerate art from German state collections” [19] legal under the Nazi control. This law also aided in “new owners having good title today”[20] which adds to the growing list of factors as to why locating looted art from the Nazi era extremely difficult, as well as understanding why complicit art dealers may not have reaped as extreme consequences as high-ranking Nazi officials. Hitler was interested in creating a way for eradicating institutions of degenerate art more useful to the Nazi war efforts, and this law was created with “highly anti-Semitic formulations and cut from the same cloth as the Degenerate Art exhibition.”[21] With the new Degenerate Art Law in-tact, many dealers began to understand the metaphorical loopholes that were being created for Hitler and the Nazis to benefit on all accounts from looting, or “liquidating”[22], the degenerate art, as well as the art seen as Germanic, thus meant to be returned to the home country.

Latour states, “to delineate a group, no matter if it has to be created from scratch or simply refreshed, you have to have spokespersons which ‘speak for’ the group existence…defining who they are, what they should be, and what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and…measuring up one definition against all others.”[23] The individuals involved in the transfer of art and artifacts from other institutions or private collections perhaps hid behind these spokespersons of the network—names that are now widespread today as being involved such as the art dealers Karl Haberstock (1878-1956), Bruno Lohse (1911-2007), and now, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956), so that they would not be apprehended. Many art dealers escaped heavy persecution following the end of World War II; the dealer Bruno Lohse spent only two years in a French prison for his complicity with the Nazis and was able to recreate his career after his release, working as an art “adviser” since he did not go through the “denazification” process that many other art dealers. [24] Other dealers like Hildebrand Gurlitt completed this process, which consisted of investigation and questioning in order to assure the Allies that they were not actually ideologically involved with heinous crimes the Nazis committed. Gurlitt even called on his Jewish ancestry while going through the denazification process, something that he tried to diminish while working as one of the four official art dealers for the Nazis. He also tried to make his position as an official art dealer not as advantageous as it appeared while he was on house arrest, telling the Americans that he was never involved in the art transfers from Paris, and that he had only briefly met Bruno Lohse once. This, of course, would have been impossible seeing as Gurlitt was tasked with getting art from the “ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) art plundering headquarters in Paris”[25] (which Lohse was in charge of) for Hitler’s Führermuseum. He also made sure to note that he had actually “only met Lohse once” and that “he was never in the ERR facility.”[26]  This only went over well for Gurlitt with the Monuments Men, as Lohse was “imprisoned at the time and deeply implicated in the Nazis’ art-plundering program.”[27] 

However, a growing question remains—one that has been extensively covered by the professor and well-known experts on Nazi-looted art, Jonathan Petropoulos—and that is how were these networks of art dealers working for the Nazis formed and why did these dealers become involved with a political ideology that had such immoral and senseless values at its core? It is difficult to come to a common consensus as to why so many well-educated, generally respected, seemingly accepting men and a few women became embroiled in the “Nazi leaders’ art policies.”[28]

Hildebrand Gurlitt: How Did an Inconspicuous Art Dealer Evade Authorities, amass one of the Largest Collections of Art during the Nazi Era, and Keep it Hidden for over 60 years?

 

A special exception to most cases of Nazi-looted art found in museum collections is the 2012 discovery of over 1,400 artworks found hidden in file cabinets, hung on the walls, and stuffed in drawers of both the Munich apartment and Salzburg, Austria residence of reclusive art collector, Cornelius Gurlitt (1932-2014).[29] The case in point, has come to be known as the Gurlitt trove, and was thrust into the public eye after a small German periodical, Focus, reported on the story in 2013 after learning about Cornelius’ arrest for suspicion of tax evasion, a full year after the initial discovery by German authorities. The artworks in question were compiled by Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer and former museum director who became involved with the Nazis during the 1930s. Acting as one of four official Nazi art dealers—along with Karl Buchholz, Ferdinand Möller, and Bernhard Böhmer—Gurlitt became involved in a tight-knit web of art collectors, dealers, professors, and Nazi officials working to achieve Hitler’s agenda. How did Gurlitt become involved with Hitler and the Nazis and how was he able to acquire artwork for his own collection? While buying and selling art that funded the Nazi war efforts, along with also riding German museums and galleries of degenerate art, Gurlitt, as well as the other art dealers, was able to purchase art for his own collection. The twist to this is that Gurlitt secretly preferred the art deemed degenerate, making it extremely easy for him to acquire this art for himself, under the guise of selling it to other collectors or museums outside of Germany.

The art found in the trove is a testament to Gurlitt’s taste, and his upbringing in the Dresden art scene that was immersed in the modern art of the early 20th century. His father, Cornelius Gurlitt, Sr. (1850-1938), was an art historian in the Dresden art community and taught at the Technical University. He even instructed Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at one point.[30] Hildebrand’s cousin, Wolfgang Gurlitt (1888-1965), was an art dealer and his uncle, Fritz Gurlitt (1854-1893), was a gallery owner and art dealer in Berlin who represented artists like Max Liebermann (whose work was found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment), Wilhelm Liebel, and Franz Skarbina. Although not directly involved in the arts, Hildebrand’s mother, Marie (1859-1949), favored artist movements such as Die Brücke. The arts were part of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s ancestry, and he desperately wanted to continue the legacy of his father as a successful art historian and—eventually—a respected museum director. While he was the director of first the King Albert Museum in Zwickau, Germany (1925 to 1930), and later the Kunstverein in Hamburg (1930 to 1933), he had hopes of leading institutions in either Berlin or Munich. However, his dreams were never realized as he was eventually ousted for continuing to display modernist German art.[31]

There is also the fact that Gurlitt had Jewish ancestry (his maternal grandmother was Jewish), which would leave him vulnerable to the growing hostility displayed by the National Socialist party. Yet, he was able to befriend important people like Hermann Voss and Kurt Kirchbach, a German industrialist who manufactured brakes for every automotive company in Germany during the 1920s whose relationships would assist Gurlitt in avoiding persecution for his background. After Gurlitt’s dismissal from the King Albert Museum, Kirchbach steadily helped him climb ranks as an art dealer, hiring him to compile an extensive photography collection, which included work by Man Ray, El Lissitzky, Edward Weston, László Maholy-Nagy, Umbo, and Albert Renger-Patzsch.[32] Gurlitt’s friendship with Kirchbach, who was undoubtedly seen as an important asset to German war vehicles, and Gurlitt’s knowledge as an art historian would be deemed too valuable, even though he was “classed as a second-degree Mischling.”[33] Gurlitt was careful to never publicly reveal his involvement with the National Socialist party. He secretly denounced Hitler to close friends and family while signing documents with “Heil, Hitler!” to appear complacent with the ideology of his contemporaries.[34] Perhaps he knew the implications of becoming involved with an over-zealous political regime yet knew that it would allow him to escape a bleaker fate while providing a means of building his longed-for reputation in the art market.[35]  

Between 1939 and 1945, Gurlitt bought and sold 19th century German art to Nazi officials like Albert Speer and Hermann Göring, while secretly plundering private collections and galleries of art deemed degenerate by his employers. Gurlitt attained sufficient business power within the ranks of Nazi bureaucracy that he was able to “write his own travel authorization and use the railways to ship artwork” anywhere in Germany.[36] Gurlitt’s main area of work was in France, following its surrender to Germany in 1940. There, he was tasked with absolving French museums of miscreant art and sending back qualified examples of Aryan art to Germany, and later, buying art directly for Hitler and Linz. The art he purchased in France was sent to German museums to “fill gaps . . . left by the elimination of modern art.”[37] Works by modern artists like Kirchner, Matisse, and Kollwitz were selling for extremely discounted prices. Gurlitt was able to acquire these pieces at low costs and ship them back to his home in Dresden on his own time, without receipts and without ensuring a credible provenance. Gurlitt knew the true reason behind why this art was suddenly available and why it was so inexpensive, yet he was able to “reason away any moral dilemmas that may have troubled him,” [38] as this was an opportunity to grow his own collection, consolidate his status as an art dealer, and repair his family’s name after it had been tarnished by his Jewish heritage.

Gurlitt had a history of saving art as a German Monuments Man during World War I[39], and although he knew that the art he was dealing in and purchasing often came from private collections of Jews deported to concentration camps, he was also a firm supporter of Pan-Germanism, which campaigned for the unity of all Germanic peoples as the superior race.[40] Indeed, he was Jewish, but he was first and foremost a German bringing this art back to his country while covertly supporting his own goals and grooming his ego.[41] After the war, Gurlitt relied on his previously denounced Jewish heritage when he convinced the American Monuments Men, specifically his first interrogator, Dwight McKay, that he was forced into conspiring with the Nazis because of his background in art history and museums.[42] According to Gurlitt, had he not collaborated with the Nazis, he would have faced a much more grim outcome. Gurlitt duped the Allied Monuments Men into believing that the art they seized—most of which was found in 2012, split between his son’s Munich apartment and the Salzburg property—was rightfully his, and that he and his family were merely the victims of the Nazis heinous war crimes. He even convinced his interrogators that the paperwork proving his ownership of the art was destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden. This was all a lie, of course, as Gurlitt was able to safely remove his family, his possessions, and any other important documents to a nearby farmland before the allied air raid took place.

Gurlitt continued to practice in art dealing until he died in a car accident in 1956 at the age of 61. There is scant information regarding what happened to his wife, Helene, and their two children, Renate and Cornelius, from the time period spanning Gurlitt’s death up until Cornelius’ arrest. Gurlitt bequeathed the entirety of his life’s work to his son, who occasionally sold pieces when he needed the money and maintained a secretive lifestyle, one in which he never even opened a German bank account.[43] There are speculations that he had secret bank accounts in Switzerland and even registered businesses in his wife Helene’s name so that he could remain in control of his guarded dealings.[44] Cornelius Gurlitt was described as a reclusive man by the various news outlets who covered the story, in particular by one magazine, Der Spiegel, who interviewed Cornelius during the height of the revealing news stories. He believed the art in his father’s collection belonged to him and his family.[45] 


[1] Edward P. Alexander, Mary Alexander, Juilee Decker, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 10.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] Ibid, 10.

[4] Kim Su Rasmussen, “Foucault’s Genealogy of Racism” Theory, Culture & Society 28 (2011): 44.

[5] Ibid, 41.

[6] Ibid, 42.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 44.

[9] Ibid, 42.

[10] Hili Perlson, “Hildebrand Gurlitt Built a Brilliant Trove of Art under the Nazis. Two New Exhibitions Show His Taste, and His Duplicity,” Artnet News, November 3, 2017. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/gurlitt-trove-bern-bonn-shows-1137587

[11] Andreas Huyssen, Anson Rabinbach, and Avinoam Shalem, “Nazi-Looted Art and Its Legacies: Introduction,” New German Critique 130 (2017): 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 128.

[14] Ibid, 131.

[15] Ibid, 28.

[16] Jonathan Petropoulos, “Five Uncomfortable and Difficult Topics Relating to the Restitution of Nazi-Looted Art,” New German Critique 130 (2017): 137.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 138.

[19] Jonathan Petropoulos, “Art Dealer Networks in the Third Reich and in the Postwar Period,” Journal of Contemporary History 52 (2017): 548.

[20] Petropoulos, “Five Uncomfortable and Difficult Topics,” 135.

[21] Ibid, 136.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Latour, 31.

[24] Jonathan Petropoulos, “Inside the Secret Market for Nazi-Looted Art,” ARTnews, January 29, 2014.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Jonathan Petropoulos, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 2.

[29] Sophie Gilbert, “The Persistent Crime of Nazi-Looted Art,” The Atlantic, March 11, 2018.

From this point in the paper, I will refer to Cornelius Gurlitt by his first name.

[30] Michael Kimmelman, “The Void at the Heart of ‘Gurlitt: Status Report,” New York Times, November 19, 2017.

[31] German Lost Art Database, “Gurlitt, Hildebrand: 1895-1956,”2018.

[32] Susan Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 132.

Hildebrand and his son, Cornelius, both gained notorieties following the 2012 discovery of the Gurlitt trove. Due to needing to mention both men several times, I will refer to Hildebrand Gurlitt by his last name, and Cornelius by his first name, in order to not confuse the two.

[33] Ibid, 174.

[34] Ibid, 209.

[35] Ibid, 271.

[36] Ibid, 12.

[37] Michael Kimmelman, “The Void at the Heart of ‘Gurlitt: Status Report,” New York Times, November 19, 2017.

[38] Susan Ronald, “Hildebrand Gurlitt and the Nazis Looting of Europe’s Treasures,” The History Reader: Dispatches in History from St. Martin’s Press, September 15, 2015.

[39] Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief, 57.

Hildebrand was a Monuments Man for Germany during World War I, precisely during 1916, until he was injured and did not return to the front lines of the war.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief, 268.

[43] Ronald, “Hildebrand Gurlitt and the Nazis Looting of Europe’s Treasures.”

[44] Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief, 209.

[45] Özlem Gezer, “Interview with a Phantom: Cornelius Gurlitt Shares His Secrets,” Der Spiegel, November 17, 2013.

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