During World War II, Gurlitt, a specialist in modern art, was hired by Joseph Goebbels, the feared Nazi propaganda minister, to fence priceless artworks stolen from homes and museums across Nazi-occupied Europe.
Gurlitt focused on so-called “degenerate” art, a term used by the Nazi’s to justify seizing masterpieces by such artists as Picasso, Henri Mattise, Marc Chagall and Paul Klee. Gurlitt was ruthlessly efficient in his work.
The Nazis plundered thousands of priceless artworks during their reign of terror. When allied armies began occupying Germany near the war’s end, they uncovered dozens of caches of stolen art. But not everything was recovered, including a stash of paintings Gurlitt personally horded.
Sixty-eight years after the war, those paintings were finally uncovered in one of the biggest finds of stolen Nazi art in recent memory. The paintings were uncovered in a shabby apartment in Munich occupied by Gurlitt’s only son, Cornelius Gurlitt, who is now 80.
Cornelius has been in possession of the artworks since his father died in a 1956 car accident at the age of 61. For years, he’s kept them in a darkened rooms in his trash and food-littered apartment.
News of the recovery was first reported last week by German magazine Focus, even though German authorities recovered the art two years ago in 2011. The theft has not only reopened an ugly chapter from the Nazi era, but also shines a light on a man who was a key player in Hitler’s art theft.
Gurlitt was born in 1895 in Dresden, Germany. His father and other family members were friends with well-known German artists, and Gurlitt was at ease in that world. His acquaintances included Irish author Samuel Beckett.
After graduating, he landed a job as the first director of the König Albert museum in Zwickau in 1925. He specialized in modern art, which the Nazis scorned as “degenerate.” Five years later he was fired for setting up an exhibit by modernist artists at the museum.
Oddly, his maternal grandmother was Jewish, and for a time the Nazis persecuted him. He lost his job and couldn’t find work.
Yet, his expertise apparently saved him. When the Nazis began seizing art, his knowledge of the market proved to be indispensable.
He was hired as a specialist at Hitler’s personal museum under the direction of Propaganda Minister Goebbels. For the Reich, he oversaw the seizure of “degenerate “art and used his wide contacts in the art world to sell it overseas to raise foreign currency for the war effort.
The art recovered in Munich apparently came from a personal collection that he skimmed from stockpiles of seized and stolen art. He was interrogated after the war and claimed his personal collection of some 1,500 works was destroyed in a Dresden fire bombing. In fact, it had survived intact.
Ironically, he used his Jewish heritage to escape prosecution after the war.
Investigators now value the art at more than $1.3 billion, according to Focus. Cornelius Gurlitt was under suspicion for tax evasion and investigators found the art when they executed a warrant to search his apartment.