The Art Hitler Hated

Ingeborg and Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bündner Kunstmuseum Chur
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self-Portrait, 1934/1937

As he had lived, Cornelius Gurlitt died at eighty-one early in May, in thrall to a trove of inherited art he kept hidden for decades mostly at a modest apartment in Munich. The announcement last year of the collection’s discovery by German authorities yanked the reclusive Gurlitt from the shadows. Stories about him busied the front pages of newspapers for weeks.

He seemed a figure out of Sebald or Kafka. He had never held a job, kept no bank accounts, was not listed in the Munich phone book. Aside from sporadic visits to a sister, who lived in Würzburg and died two years ago, he had had little contact with anyone for half a century. Der Spiegel reported that he had not watched television since 1963 or seen a movie since 1967, and that he had never been in love, except with his collection.

The art, nearly 1,300 works, some of which belatedly turned up in a second home in Salzburg, was mostly nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European pictures, a good deal of it what the Nazis called Entartete Kunst, or degenerate art, who knows how much of it seized from museums and Jews. Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, accumulated the collection. Under the Nazis, Hildebrand was dismissed from two museum posts—one in Zwickau, “for pursuing an artistic policy affronting the healthy folk feelings of Germany” by exhibiting modern art, the other in Hamburg, partly for having a Jewish grandmother. But then Goebbels handpicked him, among a few others, to sell abroad confiscated modern works. That is how Hildebrand spent the war years, placating his Nazi bosses while enriching himself, then afterward lying to Allied investigators about the destruction of his collection in Dresden.

He died in a car wreck in 1956. His widow, Cornelius’s mother, died a dozen years later, when Cornelius seems to have taken over the collection, selling the occasional picture to stay afloat but otherwise holding the art as a sort of sacrament. His father had written a self-serving essay shortly before his death describing the collection “not as my property, but rather as a kind of fief that I have been assigned to steward,” which Cornelius clearly took to heart, until his nervous behavior on a train from Zurich made Bavarian customs officers suspicious.

Early in 2012, police, customs, and tax officials descended on his Munich apartment and spent three days removing works by Picasso, Matisse, Otto Dix, Emil Nolde, and Oskar Kokoschka, along with older artists like Renoir, Courbet, Dürer, and Canaletto. Gurlitt was ordered to sit and watch. He told Der Spiegel that it was worse than the loss of his parents or his sister. By the time newspaper and television reporters discovered him and his story more than a year later, he was ill and bereft.

The usual media chatter focused…

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