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The Public Can Finally See Works From the Infamous Nazi-Looted Art Trove

Two exhibitions are exploring the treasures and context behind the cache of “degenerate” art uncovered in a Munich apartment in 2012

Claude Monet's "Waterloo Bridge" is one of the roughly 1,500 works in Gurlitt's collection (Bundeskunsthalle)
smithsonian.com

This week, the public will finally be able to view a selection of the roughly 1,500 paintings, prints and other modern artworks uncovered in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, the “art dealer to the Führer" back in 2012.

The Guardian’s Kate Connolly reports that exhibitions featuring works from Gurlitt’s collection will open at Switzerland’s Museum of Fine Arts Bern and Germany’s Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn on November 2 and 3, respectively.

The Museum of Fine Arts Bern’s exhibition centers on the Nazi regime’s attitude toward modern art—or as the Nazis deemed the movement, “degenerate” art—the Bundeskunsthalle’s exhibition will focus on examining Nazi art theft in conjunction with the persecution of artists, collectors and dealers.

“For the first time the public will be given an insight into these works of art that have been talked about in the news so much as a sensational find and a treasure trove," ​Nina Zimmer, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Bern, tells Connolly.

Authorities discovered Gurlitt’s collection of works by artists including Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Gustave Courbet during a February 2012 tax investigation. They confiscated the art but kept its existence under wraps until a German newsmagazine published an expose in November 2013.

Gurlitt assumed possession of the works following the 1956 death of his father, art dealer and critic Hildebrand Gurlitt. According to the New York Times, the elder Gurlitt was one of only four individuals allowed to deal “degenerate” art under the Nazi regime. He amassed much of his art from pillaged German museums and Jewish individuals’ confiscated collections, thereby creating a tenuous path for future authorities hoping to track the works’ provenance.

Özlem Gezer of the German news outlet Der Spiegel writes that Gurlitt hoped to preserve his father’s legacy by keeping the art safely stored in his tiny Munich apartment. Following the loss of his paintings, the then 80-year-old Gurlitt expressed confusion over individuals’ interest in what he deemed his personal property.

“What do these people want from me?” Gurlitt asked. “I'm just a very quiet person. All I wanted to do was live with my pictures. Why are they photographing me for these newspapers, which normally only feature photos of shady characters?"

Gurlitt died a year after the find was made public. In his will, he identified the Kuntsmuseum as the heir to his vast collection, but as Artnet’s Henri Neuendorf notes, the unexpected decision proved controversial. Members of the Gurlitt family argued that the elderly man had not been mentally fit to bequeath such a gift, and they fought to invalidate the will until a German court ruled in the museum’s favor last December.

An international task force dedicated to tracking the works’ provenance has identified just six pieces looted by the Nazis. Five of the works have been returned to the descendants of their original owners (the sixth was only identified last week), but the provenance of many remaining pieces is still unclear.

Rein Wolfs, the Bundeskunsthalle’s director, assures the New York Times that artwork whose provenance is in doubt will remain in Germany to await identification—and, eventually, restitution.

About Meilan Solly
Meilan Solly

Meilan Solly is an intern with the American Society of Magazine Editors. She is a senior in the College of William and Mary/University of St. Andrews Joint Degree Programme. Previously, Solly interned at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and served as editor-in-chief of The Saint, St. Andrews’ student newspaper.

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