Structure of the Collection of Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt

By Dr. Hannes Hartung, attorney-at-law, Munich

Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt was appointed as director of the König-Albert-Museum in Zwickau, Germany, on April 1, 1925. He was dismissed on April 1, 1930, due to his active purchasing and promotion of modern art. Gurlitt moved to Hamburg and in May 1931 was appointed as managing director of the Hamburg Kunstverein. Due to his partially Jewish origins he vacated his position on July 14, 1933, in response to Nazi pressure. In Hamburg, Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt established a successful gallery for modern art. In no other German city were artists like Munch, Nolde, Barlach, Kirchner, and Schmidt-Rottluff collected and traded as avidly as in Hamburg.

“Degenerate” art

Since 1925, Gurlitt had outstanding contacts to the leading private and public collections in Germany. In 1937, a campaign was launched to confiscate “degenerate” art from German museums. The confiscation was retroactively legitimized through the Confiscation Act of May 31, 1938.

In 1940, Gurlitt advanced to become one of the most important art dealers in the German Reich. In this capacity he acquired works for the Führermuseum planned by Hitler in Linz, Austria. In the same year, Gurlitt purchased a very large quantity of works that had formerly been Reich property from the German Reich and that as “degenerate” art had been confiscated from German museums. After the totalitarian “integration” process (Gleichschaltung), the German Reich saw no difference, both practically and legally, between national, regional, and local governments as we have today in our federal structure.

The works originally came from the property of the German Reich and were legally acquired by Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt by way of purchase or trade. The collection of Cornelius Gurlitt confiscated in Schwabing now includes about 380 of these artwork.

Hildebrand Gurlitt’s avid acquisition activities, among other things motivated by the desire to save art labeled as degenerate from its destruction, is documented in the so-called Fischer List (see http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/e/entartete-kunst/). This list shows that Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt legally acquired many important works from former German Reich property. In many instances the works would have been destroyed if Dr. Gurlitt had not acquired them at bargain prices. The art that had been defamed as “degenerate” can therefore be considered the art historical focus of the Gurlitt collection.

Private property of the Gurlitt family

A large part of the artworks confiscated by the public prosecutors also includes works from the private collection of the Gurlitt family. Cornelius Gurlitt’s family is a major dynasty of German art historians. Some 330 works were already part of the family’s private collection before 1933 and are meant to be returned to their rightful owner, Cornelius Gurlitt, in the near future.

“Looted art

When the Nazis persecuted what they considered “degenerate” art, their target was the art itself and not its owners. Only in the case of looted art were the cultural assets bought up for far less than they were worth (compulsory sale), dispossessed, or confiscated. Only very few works in the collection of Cornelius Gurlitt are suspected of being looted art.

Another 590 works are the solely property of Cornelius Gurlitt. Currently (as of February 14, 2014) only four claimants assert that the Gurlitt collection contains works that may have once been appropriated from Jewish owners in the context of Nazi persecution. Stated differently, the 1,280 seized works that are the property of Cornelius Gurlitt have attracted only four claimants who demand the return of so-called looted art from Cornelius Gurlitt. Specifically, the claimants are the Rosenberg, Friedmann, Glaser, and Littmann heirs.

Nonetheless, the authorities who through indiscretion made the case public in the first place placed the entire collection under suspicion of being looted art without any compelling evidence. To this day there are no concrete proofs or indications for these wholesale allegations.

Recommended Reading for the Looted Art Issue

Hannes Hartung, “Kunstraub in Krieg und Verfolgung: Die Restitution der Beute- und Raubkunst im Kollisions-und Völkerrecht,” in Schriften für Kulturgüterschutz, De Gruyter Recht, Berlin 2005

Guideline for the implementation of the “Declaration of the federal, state, and local organizations in charge of locating cultural assets seized in the context of Nazi persecution, in particular from Jewish owners” published in December 1999 and February 2001, revised in November 2007