Wednesday, November 6, 2013

German Authorities Find $1-Billion in Nazi-Looted Art in a Munich apartment

Untitled painting by Franz Marc who was killed in action during WW I. 

The German magazine Focus has just revealed the news of the astonishing discovery of about $1-billion worth of looted art missing since the Nazi era. Although the art was seized almost two years ago, the Focus story apparently represents the first public account of the works' discovery.

In 2012 German customs officials raided the private apartment of Cornelius Gurlittand, the son of a famous Nazi era art dealer. They confiscated 1,406 works of art by famous artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Chagall.

But the story really began back in 2010.

Throughout the years following the war, there have been governments, institutions and individuals who have profited from the Nazi's actions. Life insurance unpaid, savings accounts and looted personal possessions including art, became the spoils of war. Even now when much that was hidden is revealed, self interested parties continue to obstruct restitution and  justice for the victims of Nazi brutality.

For instance, look at the story of Jacques Goudstikker,  a well-known art dealer and collector. His speciality was "Old Masters," just the kind of art that Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had a taste for. Over the objections of his widow, Goring obtained the collection in a forced sale six days after Goudstikker's death. Naturally the art sold for a fraction of their real value.

This story is a tale of tragedy, greed, bigotry and great injustice, redeemed by courage and perseverance. It is a great story, but the ending is bitter-sweet for the principals never saw justice done, and indeed, the price of justice has been very high. It took the Nazis two months to loot the family's belongings. It took the family sixty years to recover a fraction of what was stolen.

The treasure trove that was just unearthed in Munich contains a great many pieces of what was considered "degenerate art" by the Nazis. They classified "degenerate art" as the product of Jews and Bolsheviks, although only six of the 112 artists featured in the 1937 exhibition were actually Jewish. They also underestimated the appeal of this art to the German public. The exhibition attracted more than a million visitors - three times more than the officially sanctioned "Great German Art Exhibition."

Many big truths here, none revelatory, all tragic. Nazis were evil scum who treated artists and creative art with the same inhuman contempt they exhibited toward Jews, Gypsies, Gays, and other demonized peoples.

Two pieces by Otto Dix, who was despised by Hitler. He was one of the lucky ones. Although he was arrested by the Nazis, he was released. Later Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm. He was captured by French troops at the end of the war and released in February 1946.

This is possibly the biggest trove of missing 20th-century European art discovered since the end of World War II, and the first glimpse of it on Tuesday brought astonishment but also anger and the early stirrings of what will likely be a prolonged battle over who owns the works. (Larger treasure troves are probably in Russian hands but good luck in getting any of that back.)

A previously unknown work by Matisse

Art historian describes 'incredible joy' at seeing previously unknown works among 1,406 found at home of Cornelius Gurlitt. Now how about putting photos of the work on the Internet and working with the various agencies who track down the heirs to Nazi-looted art?

The German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was also branded a "degenerate". This picture, entitled "Melancholic Girl, " was previously unknown. Kirchner committed suicide after the Nazis came to power.

Why has there been such a gap between the discovery of the works and the public revelation of this treasure trove? My cynical response is that the authorities were hoping to not have to deal with the survivors and their claims. The longer the wait, the fewer survivors one has to deal with. Then it could have been sold or put in German museums, just like so much of what was stolen has ended up in both European and Russian museums and private hands. I doubt if there is a big museum in the world that doesn't have a piece of Nazi looted art.

     Another unknown painting - this one by Chagall. 

A lyrical and melancholic essay by NY Times writer Michael Kimmelman

This may only be the tip of the iceberg.  "In the community of German art dealers there were about 40 people like Gurlitt's father. If each of them had 2,000 works, we get to a huge quantity of paintings that are still hidden all over the world − not only in Germany," Tel Aviv-based attorney Joel Levi he told Haaretz.

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