The Vile Gurlitts

Critique and illustration by: Chris Talbot-Heindl

Recently, a veritable artistic goldmine was discovered as a collection of 1,500 artworks, including pieces by Picasso, Renoir, Beckmann, Liebermann, and Matisse were discovered in Munich, Germany.

The pieces had been confiscated by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, and at least 200 pieces that were recovered are on lists of missing treasures.

This, in and of itself, is a disgusting and unfortunate history, but not news. Some sources estimate that Nazis seized 100,000 paintings, artworks, tapestries, and antiques from the homes of Jewish people in France alone. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that of the 100,000 valuables stolen; about 16,000 of them have been valuable pieces of artwork. Thousands have since been returned to the descendants of the original owners, but many have never surfaced.

What makes this story all the more skin-crawlingly upsetting is that one family had taken advantage of the horrible history of Nazi atrocities in order to hoard these pieces and sell them off, as they needed the cash.

The artworks were discovered by complete chance in early 2011 when Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of the art dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was being investigated for tax evasion. Cornelius had been stopped on a train to Switzerland in 2010 carrying 9,000 euros in cash during a sweep and was flagged for a random background check designed to expose money-launderers traveling to Switzerland.

What they found was both amazing (in that it was finally recovered) and disgusting (with the history of how it had gotten there). Cornelius had been keeping the artworks in the darkened rooms, amid junk and clutter, in his apartment for more than half a century, occasionally selling the invaluable pieces off when he needed money.

According to a customs spokesman, “We went into the apartment expecting to find a few thousand undeclared euros, maybe a black bank account. But we were stunned with what we found. From floor to ceiling, from bedroom to bathroom, were piles and piles of old food tins and old noodles. Behind it all these pictures worth tens, hundreds of millions of euros.”

Cornelius was able to do this because of Hildebrand’s role during the Nazi era.

Hildebrand had a Jewish grandmother, but the Nazi’s viewed him as valuable because of his expertise in art and his network of contacts. Hildebrand was in charge of exporting art that the Nazi party considered “degenerate.”

He sold part of the 20,000-piece Degenerate Art collection when it was put on display in Munich in 1937. But, after the war, he was allowed to continue the business of selling these stolen works! He told allied investigators that the artworks were destroyed when the family mansion was destroyed in Dresden in 1945, and continued his sick and twisted work out of the apartment in Munich.

Hildebrand and Cornelius Gurlitt had kept 1 billion euro ($1.35 billion) worth of stolen, rare, important artwork locked away for nearly 70 years. But more than that, they continued the Nazi paradigm of dehumanizing the Jewish people they had appallingly taken art, liberty, and life from long after the Nazi regime had fallen.

At any point in the last 70 years, one would expect that one of these ghastly duo would have grown a shred of common decency and reunited the families with their artwork.

So, although authorities have charged Cornelius with tax evasion and embezzlement, I’d like to publicly state, he should be charged with something stronger that befits the revolting and vile human piece of garbage that he is.