For over half a decade, a man named Cornelius Gurlitt hid 1400 pieces of Nazi-looted art worth over at least 1.5 billion dollars in the basement of his home in Munich. In February 2012, German authorities raided Gurlitt’s home in Bavaria, seized the pieces he allegedly inherited from his father, Hildenbrand Gurlitt, a German museum director during the Nazi era. The government then returned the pieces ‘home’ to Germany. The question as to whether that home is indeed the rightful one is bringing back heated debates regarding ‘politicized’ art.
Regardless of the claims of ownership, German art experts have been hard at work at identifying the pieces in order to satiate the global desire for more information. They recently released an impressive list of 25 pieces they identified including Picassos and Max Liebermann’s famed “Riders on the Beach.” However, what is far more intriguing is that close to 300 pieces from the find allegedly belong to the famed Nazi “Degenerates” exhibit of 1937. Staged directly across the Nazi organized “Great German Art Exhibition”, the Degenerate art, composed mostly of art by Jewish painters, was supposed to stand in poor contrast to the ‘Great’ art that conformed to Nazi regulations.
The Degenerates garnered far more attention however, much to the chagrin of Nazi officials and five times as many people visited the Degenerates exhibition over that of the Nazi approved ‘Great’ art. While the less valuable art from the Degenerates exhibition was eventually burned by the Nazis, many of them survived today simply because they were seen as more valuable than Nazi approved art. Ironically, by deeming them as “degenerate” the Nazis ensured their survival. The greatest evidence for this is the fact that they survived as part of Gurlitt’s illicit collection, and are worth millions today.
While the raid occurred well over a year ago, German news journals only broke the story just this past month, leading to inevitable uproar from the German population and others around the world as to why such an incredibly massive find was kept hidden. The muted response from the German government is understandable, however, given the nature of the findings. They represent a bygone era, one that the Germans have worked hard to, and, so far, successfully recuperated from. In the words of the German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle himself, they fear that the find could damage “trust that [they] have built over many decades” after the Second World War. But in what can only be described as both in direct contrast to Mr. Westerwelle’s statement and as amusingly ironic, some of these art pieces may never be returned to the private institutions they were looted from because of Nazi-era laws regarding confiscated art that are still in place in Germany today.
The Nazi confiscation laws of 1938 were established for the specific purpose of seizing art they deemed as ‘degenerate’, voiding the artist or owner of any sort of proprietorship of the piece. Today, within this context, the German government is still essentially entitled to the ownership of any confiscated art they deem as illegally owned and thus have no legal obligation to return the recently discovered pieces. While it can be argued that Germany has to return the art to its rightful owners as part of the Washington Principles act of 1998 which states that Nazi-looted art must be returned to its rightful owners, the act has exclusively been applied to state owned art in museums, rather than Nazi-looted art confiscated from a private individual. While Germany may be forced to hand the art back to private owners and museum to avoid a public and international relations disaster, they are indeed entering a part of uncharted legal territory in terms of confiscated art.
Irrespective of the matter of ownership, it would be a tragedy to see, or rather not see, these paintings locked up in safes in Swiss banks or on the walls in private mansions on Lake Como. While they represent an era that the Germans would like to forget, the immeasurable hours and toil that the artists put into these paintings deserves attention. People today need to see the paintings, not just to understand this facet of Nazi history, but also to comprehend why these incredible paintings were able to ensure their own survival to date.
It is both easy to forget and hard to remember that the confiscation of these piece represented more than just the mere censorship of the Jewish people. The pieces embody the last remnants of the voice and expression of not one, but multiple generations of Jewish people that perished in the Holocaust. To hide them away in private collections would simply mean reenacting the confiscation and censorship so many decades ago. Ultimately, these paintings themselves have been sitting in the presence of a single man for far too long and deserve to see the light of day once again.