The issue: The task of finding rightful owners is formidable, but simple justice demands it
Among the many sins of the Nazi leaders who afflicted Europe for 12 years, until they were bludgeoned into surrender in 1945, is that they were unsurpassed as thieves and robbers.
SHOCKING AND BELATED evidence of their greed exploded recently with the disclosure that a trove of more than 1,400 works of art — likely looted, stolen or coerced from their owners — had been found in a shabby Munich apartment belonging to the elderly son of an art dealer in league with the Nazis.
The works, preliminarily valued at $1.35 billion, are described by The Wall Street Journal as comprising “one of the most significant collections of pre-war European art in the world.” It includes art by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Klee, Kandinsky and Toulouse-Lautrec, even a 16th-century engraving by Albrecht Durer.
The art was amassed by Hildebrand Gurlitt, purged from his job as museum curator for showing modern works — and for being part-Jewish. Nonetheless, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels charged Gurlitt with cleansing museums in Germany and occupied countries of “degenerate art.” Hitler fancied himself an art connoisseur, but his tastes ran heavily to corny representational painting. Anything modern or abstract was deemed a corrupting influence.
Much of what Gurlitt confiscated found its way into his private collection instead of being destroyed or sold abroad. The treasures came to light two years ago in connection with a tax investigation of his son, Cornelius. The elder Gurlitt died in 1956.
THE ART HAS BEEN removed to a secure warehouse for safekeeping. In the meantime, many questions remain unanswered. Why, for example, did it take two years for the existence of the cache to come to light?
German authorities cite the legal secrecy of tax investigations, but the collection’s importance and value would seem to outweigh considerations of tax evasion by an 80-year-old man.
The Daily Beast reports that for the past 40 years, Cornelius Gurlitt owned a house in Salzburg, Austria, which has yet to be searched. It adds that an official from the prosecutor’s office in Augsburg, Germany, would not say whether Gurlitt is alive or dead. The Nazis squirreled away a lot of looted property later recovered from Austrian salt mines, making the house a logical place to look.
One possible explanation for the delay is that authorities wanted to document the collection and, wherever possible, its provenance before the inevitable avalanche of claimants: descendants of the original Jewish owners who were expelled or exterminated, museums stripped by the Nazis, collectors forced to sell for a pittance.
THE TASK of finding rightful owners is formidable. But simple justice demands that the German government at least try.