The Controversy of Cornelius Gurlitt

The case of the art hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt provides illuminating insights into the German character

The strange case of Cornelius Gurlitt, the art hoarder, was one of the rare instances where the controversies of history congeal in one person. The quiet drama of his life behind the curtains of normality couldn’t have been painted by even the most skilled novelist.

The reclusive Gurlitt, who died last month at the age of 81 after having provided the art world with its biggest news story of recent times, came from nowhere: a ghostlike figure ready to haunt the national psyche yet again. He came from a respectable upper-middle-class family, who had been important players in the art world since the 19th century. His father, a prominent art-dealer between the wars, went by the rather Teutonic name of Hildebrand, but was deemed a quarter Jewish under the Nuremberg race laws and was removed from his museum posts. Yet he was also granted permission by the Nazi government to sell confiscated “degenerate” art. This he readily did, acquiring a stellar collection of more than 1,200 paintings and drawings by Picasso, Matisse, Beckmann, Chagall and others. Some of these works were plundered from German museums, but many belonged to Jewish collectors who were forced to sell their art or simply had them confiscated, before or after being expelled or murdered.

Hildebrand left this collection to his son Cornelius, who felt he had to protect the works from an outside world that would get between himself and his only love, his treasure, as he called it. In his apartment in the upmarket Schwabing district of Munich, he would take out items from the hoard to talk to them at night before he went to bed.

Germany has its fair share of fetishistic neurotics who seem to have crept out of a gloomy novel. (Think of the cannibal who in 2001 insisted on eating another man’s penis fried in onions.) This case, however, may reveal even more astonishing insights into the German public’s character. 

Outrage flared last autumn after a German magazine broke the story of Gurlitt’s collection and the authorities’ failure to reveal its existence, which was originally investigated as a case of tax fraud. Germany not only has particularly strict laws protecting private property and privacy, but also, more surprisingly, no law preventing an individual or an institution from owning looted art. To this day, experts believe many museums have works in their stores that are not rightfully theirs. There is the Washington agreement on Nazi-confiscated art, signed in 1998 to formally enshrine the idea of a special responsibility to repair the damage caused by the looting of art. And there is the online database Lost Art, which registers cultural objects that as a result of persecution under the Nazis were relocated, moved or seized, especially from Jewish owners. Both, however, are voluntary measures, not legal instruments.

As soon as the story broke, embarrassed officials in Berlin turned the job of investigating the provenance of the works in Gurlitt’s collection over to an international taskforce, and the German culture minister, Monika Grütters, assured the public that Gurlitt was “committed to the voluntary return of any looted art”.

But what did the public really think? Most of my colleagues were simply flabbergasted, while a few, more deeply involved in the art scene, speculated that those in the know must have heard that Gurlitt had a big collection of looted art. But the general reaction was more subtle, and this is what makes the case so interesting.

There was a peculiar reluctance to turn the case into a moral issue — unimaginable to Americans and Britons used to common sense. But even those who stressed that it was important to discuss the issue first and foremost on legal grounds couldn’t help but be fascinated by the man who had lived his life hidden in plain sight of the authorities. Gurlitt seemed oddly apolitical, professing an innocence no other German could get away with, as if haunted by an inability to part from a past that was both his personal past, that of his country, and that of perpetrators and victims alike.

Did he have a moral responsibility to return the works? As with many of his generation, he died before taking his share of responsibility for the past.

Gurlitt did, however, answer the question indirectly. He appointed the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern as his sole heir. This came as news to the museum, as well as the rest of us, since Gurlitt had no known connection with Bern. While the task force set up in Berlin to establish the rightful owners will continue its work, to Germans it feels like a somewhat bitter twist that the biggest collection of looted art will go to a private foundation based in Switzerland, a country that remained safely neutral during the Nazi era. The moral responsibility for resolving the legal and moral ramifications of this extraordinary story now lies in Bern.

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