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From Hollywood to the Headlines: Art Looted by the Nazis Comes to Light

This month, a long kept secret came to light, causing controversy and making headlines from Berlin to Hollywood: Pilfered art from the Second World War.

It all began with the discovery of what the New York Times calls, “the largest trove of masterworks to be uncovered since World War II,” a trove that may be worth over a billion dollars.  Although only reported this month, the actual discovery took place almost two years ago, when German authorities raided a Munich apartment, horrifying its 80-year-old occupant, and confiscated over 1,400 pieces of art – including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Albrecht Dürer and many others. The German government must now attempt to determine the art’s true owners.  Not surprisingly, tensions among museum operators, government officials, Holocaust survivors and descendants of the original owners or the works of art are running high.  The story’s central character is a hermitic old man, dragged unwillingly into the spotlight. As his tale continues to unfold, the world watches raptly, riveted not only by these long lost treasures, but also by the controversy their discovery has fueled.

It is a story with deep roots: The chaos and destruction of World War II left a horribly fragmented cultural world: art lost forever in the confusion or destroyed in battle; art declared “degenerate” and destroyed by Hitler (whose opinions on racial purity were mirrored in his opinions on purity in art); art seized throughout the continent and carted back to Germany; and art stolen from or sold under duress by Jewish collectors.  It’s now almost 70 years since the war’s end, but European authorities and the descendants of the original owners of looted art are still attempting to put the pieces back where they belong.

Close to 1,400 of these missing pieces were found in the home of 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, a recluse who has been painted by the media as tragic, bizarre and potentially culpable.  He inherited the art from his father, one of only four art dealers licensed by Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, to purchase and sell “degenerate” art during the war.  The elder Mr. Gurlitt took the position after losing the job he held before the war because of his status as part-Jewish.  His son, Cornelius, has been described by the New York Times as “Gollum-like,” jealously hoarding his treasure away from the world “behind permanently drawn blinds.” Interviews reveal a confused, elderly man devastated by the loss of the pictures that had become the center of his existence. Charles Goldstein, counsel for the Commission of Art Recovery, which attempts to recover and return art seized from Jewish owners during the war, warns that the German government has, “got a hot potato… [some of] this stuff belongs to Gurlitt, and they have no proof that it’s not his.”  However, although much the art may be proved to belong to Mr. Gurlitt, no one denies that the trove is tainted by a history of theft and exploitation.  It may turn out that who it belongs to legally, and who it belongs to morally, are not the same.

Questions over the true ownership of these treasures have resulted in an outpouring of anger and emotion, and not just by Mr. Gurlitt. The German government has been severely criticized for not publicizing its find sooner, perhaps because of the difficulties inherent in determining who can rightly claim to own what.  In response, it has now created a special task force to investigate the Gurlitt trove, which has begun to post images of the art online.

For many, glimpses of the pieces have brought both hope and consternation.  David Toren, now a resident of New York, was shocked to hear that the collection included Max Liebermann’s “Riders on the Beach” – a painting he last saw as a young child, hanging on his great-uncle’s wall, before it was stolen by the Nazis. Mr. Toren has declared his determination to get the art back, and he may succeed.  However, although laws exist to return art to individuals and their descendants, many museums are now attempting to win the same right for themselves. The curators of  the Moritzburg Foundation in Halle, Germany, for example, were delighted to recognize a piece from their collections in the photos the government has released: Franz Marc’s “Landscape With Horses”. However, they face a perhaps-insurmountable obstacle in reclaiming the work, because the 1938 law which legalized the seizure of thousands of Modernist works deemed “degenerate” has never been repealed.  And the government is unlikely to repeal the Nazi law, because doing so would result in the ownership of countless additional works of art being called to question.

Overall, it’s just a mess.  Experts believe that it will likely take years to identify the true owners of the Gurlitt collection.  Many pieces may be determined to belong to Cornelius Gurlitt himself, and hopefully some will be returned as small compensation to those families who suffered so much under the Third Reich. In the meantime,  the discovery will continue to dredge up old pains and rouse new anger.  Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, has expressed concern over the collection’s political impact, saying the discovery could damage the international, “trust that we have built over many decades” after World War II.  And he’s right – the world is watching, and a drama over a Nazi-era treasure trove is unlikely to lose its interest anytime soon.

Like many others, I was immediately intrigued the first time I saw the Gurlitt story in the headlines.  I was in the midst of reading a book I’d recently picked up: “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” and so the words “Nazi” and “art” were quick to catch my eye.  “The Monuments Men” is a well-written historical work with an adventurous flair, documenting the little-known story of the men of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in the Second World War.  This program was comprised of Allied soldiers – men who had been curators or art historians or restoration experts in their past lives, recruited to help save priceless works of art from possible destruction as the Allies retook Europe, one country at a time.  The task to which they were assigned was at once, daunting, unique, and dangerous: to risk their lives to rescue – not Europe’s people – but rather her cultural history. Often, this included required becoming a thorn in the side of Allied commanders, for whom the preservation of historical monuments and art while battle was raging was hardly a top priority.  Beyond simply preventing further damage, they were also charged with recovering countless pieces of art that Hitler, always an art lover, had stolen from across the continent to augment German museums.

I’m not alone in finding “The Monuments Men” and the stories it documents fascinating.  In fact, a film adaptation of the New York Times bestseller will be released this February. The movie version, co-written, produced and directed by George Clooney, will feature a star-studded cast, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, and Clooney himself.  With the Gurlitt drama still unfolding, this film – and the book it is based on – are sure to bring the deep emotions surrounding these events to life.  As November wears on, I continue to open my paper to find articles on the Gurlitt trove, only to then pick up my book or to see a “Monuments Men” trailer pop up on my computer screen.

It’s no surprise, then, that I often find myself asking the same question: Why is art that was pilfered so long ago such a hot topic today?

The answer, I think, is that the story both repulses and fascinates us. And despite the passage of so many years – and, indeed, of the lives of most of the individuals directly involved – it somehow continues to feel deeply personal. Perhaps that’s because it’s the story of the theft of our Western culture, of a vital part of what helps our society define itself, something which makes our society seem beautiful in spite of the many deeds we perpetrate that are so ugly. The idea of the Mona Lisa, or a Michelangelo, being stolen feels like not only a tragic loss of a thing of beauty, but also a violation or who we are.

Moreover, World War II does not yet feel like ancient history.  When I lived in France, I met people who remembered hiding Allied soldiers in their homes from the Nazis, or whose parents fought in the Resistance. One family I met took me on a walk in the woods behind their home to show me the bomb craters and decaying bunkers that remain to this day. Another thanked me for simply being an American, despite the fact that the war ended years before I was born.  The idea of a family rightfully reclaiming art that was stolen from it does not yet feel abstract. Instead, it feels necessary.

The ongoing drama of the Gurlitt saga offers an opportunity to us to understand and appreciate what might best be called “cultural empathy.” While the return of a piece of art can never make up for the vast injustices that the Nazis perpetrated against millions of their victims, it is an essential gesture, a sign that the world still cares.  It also gives us an opportunity to wonder why the destruction and theft of cultural treasures committed seventy years ago in Europe seems to bother us more than art being stolen much more recently in the Middle East. Why was it, for example, that the Allies found the time to train and deploy the Monuments Men in Europe in the midst of a total war that raged across the globe, but our American government stood aside and watched as priceless treasures were looted from museums in Baghdad in 2003? And why must museums in the Middle East, Central America and other nations sue those in Europe and the U.S. to force the return of not just art works plundered in the past, but also ones that museums continue to purchase today?

Doubtless, it all comes back to cultural empathy – or, more precisely, empathy for our own culture, but not for the culture of others. We need to realize that when a wrong is perpetrated against anyone’s culture, it’s a wrong against everyone’s rights as a society. Perhaps the emotions that the Gurlitt saga is raising among us today will help us better appreciate the losses felt by others abroad – and act accordingly.

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About the author
Nora Updegrove
Nora Updegrove
Nora Updegrove studied government and international relations at Georgetown University and works as a writer and researcher. Other experience includes work on Capitol Hill, a European advocacy group, and marketing for international non-profits. Outside of work, she loves politics, mythology and her dog.

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