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Cornelius Wasn’t the Only Gurlitt Sibling to Inherit Nazi-Looted Art

Nicoline Benita Renate Gurlitt received 18 works from her father’s trove of stolen art, and four of these works were just returned to their rightful owners

Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen, Preparatory sketch with a drawn frame for an illustration of the "Comedy Les Moissonneurs," 1768 (Private collection, South Germany.)
smithsonian.com

After Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt died in a car crash in 1956, Nicoline Benita Renate (known to her family as Benita) found herself struggling to come to terms with the singular inheritance her father had left behind. In a 1964 letter addressed to her older brother Cornelius, she wrote, “I sometimes think his most personal and most valuable legacy has turned into the darkest burden. What we have is locked away in the graphics cabinet or kept behind pinned-up curtains. … I tremble with fear every time I even think about it.”

The “burden” Benita refers to—a trove of roughly 1,500 modern art masterpieces largely confiscated from their Jewish owners by representatives of the Third Reich—remained the Gurlitt family secret for nearly 50 years. But in February 2012, authorities raided Cornelius’ Munich apartment, seizing his collection of works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall and drawing attention to the difficult task of restituting Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners.

Cornelius’ vast collection has attracted much scrutiny in the years since its discovery, but as Naomi Rea reports for artnet News, the elder Gurlitt wasn’t the only sibling to inherit Hildebrand’s wartime bounty.

According to an inventory of her estate, Benita, who died just months after the 2012 raid, possessed 18 pieces from her father’s collection. Now, four of these works of art—two drawings by Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen, Augustin de Saint Aubin’s “Portrait of a Lady in Profile” and a self-portrait by Anne Vallayer-Coster—have been traced back to their original Jewish owner, a French industrialist named Henri Deutsch de la Meur­the.

Rea notes that Deutsch de la Meurthe’s heirs descend from the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust, a daughter named Georgette. As Deutsche Welle explains, the family’s Parisian home and all of its contents were confiscated during the Nazi occupation of France.

Following the war, the family filed a loss report detailing the looted drawings and other stolen belongings. The listing was included in the Gurlitt Provenance Research Project and published in July 2017 on the public database of missing art run by the German Lost Art Foundation, an organization established to identify and restitute illegally seized works of art.

There, according to a press release, an unnamed collector spotted the four drawings and voluntarily yielded them to the foundation, which soon traced them back to the Deutsch de la Meurthe family.

In a statement, German culture minister Moni­ka Grüt­ters praised the collector’s decision, saying, “It is an important step toward coming to terms with [Nazi] art theft that private individuals also accept their responsibility and have their holdings examined.”

Benita’s four drawings will now join a selection of her brother’s holdings in a new show at the Martin-Gropis-Bau in Berlin. Gurlitt: Status Report will feature approximately 250 works from the joint exhibition hosted by Switzerland’s Museum of Fine Arts Bern and Germany’s Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn last November. The two shows, which brought some 400 works from the Gurlitt trove on view for the first time, centered on the Nazi regime’s attitude toward modern, or “degenerate” art, and the persecution of artists, dealers and collector, respectively. Deutsch de la Meurthe’s descendants have approved the inclusion of their drawings in the new show, which will run from September 14 to January 7, 2019.

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