Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Saga of Twists and Turns

Woman With Fan-Matisse
Joint Lab April 14, 2015 by Susan Weinberg

Both Labs gathered this week to attend a lecture at the Weisman Museum by Yehudit Shendar on the topic entitled The Insatiable Pursuit of Art. Shendar has retired from a seventeen year career at Yad Vashem in the course of which she served as Deputy Director, Senior Art Curator and Director of their Holocaust Art Museum. 

 She shared with us the details of her "retirement career". In 2013 a cache of 1400 works of art were seized from Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer permitted to trade in modern art during the Nazi era. Shendar was appointed to an international task force charged with researching the provenance of the artworks. Given that it took them a year and a half to validate four works, this is likely a career for life.

Shendar has ties to the Twin Cities having received a masters in Art History from the U of M. She worked at the Weisman before it was the Weisman as we know it today.Shendar traced the unfolding of the Gurlitt case and its many twists and turns. It began as Gurlitt traveled from Zurich to Munich carrying 9000 Euros. The authorities followed the money and discovered the art. Originally it was treated as a tax evasion case and kept private for two years.Eventually it became apparent that this was a much larger issue and Dr. Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, previously Deputy State Secretary of Culture in Germany was also pulled from retirement to head the task force. It was agreed that the statute of limitations would not apply to this work.

After the discovery of the Munich Trove, further discoveries arose. There were 238 works located in Gurlitt's Salzburg residence which previously had been searched and nothing discovered. Apparently the works were in an area that was not searched. Must be quite the residence! A separate team was appointed for the Salzburg trove. Still later a Monet was discovered in an abandoned suitcase at a hospital where Gurlitt had been. The artwork located thus far can be viewed at the lost art database.

In the midst of these discoveries the ownership was further thrown into question by the death of Cornelius Gurlitt. The foundation of the Kunst Museum in Bern was named as the sole beneficiary in a will written two months before Gurlitt's death. The museum accepted the bequest. A tri-party agreement was made between the Bavarian Minister for Justice, the Federal Commission for Culture and the Media and the Bern Museum of Art where it was agreed that the museum will retain anything where there is no claim. If there is inconclusive provenance the work will stay in Germany. 

Of course relatives protested the will and claimed that Gurlitt was not of sound mental health. Despite this competing claim the Bern Museum was declared the rightful owner by the German court. 

Documents from Gurlitt's art dealer father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, were found to have been removed from the Salzberg home before Gurlitt's death. Of course these documents would be very useful in determining provenance, but it was only now that the task force had access to them. They have since been digitized.

The looting of art by the Nazis was a well orchestrated operation at the highest levels. Hitler and Goering wanted to build a museum in Linz, Austria, the town of Hitler's birth. Goering had built a mausoleum named Carinhall after his late wife and moved many artworks to this location. Alfred Rosenberg headed up the ERR which was assigned the task of confiscating valuable cultural property held by Jews. At the Nurenberg trial Rosenberg claimed it was not looting as it was not taken privately, but at the behest of the state to protect cultural objects. Artwork was hidden at Aschbach Castle to protect it from Allied bombing. In 1945 when the Monument Men questioned Hildebrand Gurlitt, he reinvented himself as a victim of the Nazis. He claimed his grandmother was Jewish and he acted to save the art. In fact his grandmother was Jewish, but he was hardly a victim. Ultimately the Monument Men returned much of his art to him not fulling appreciating the scope of his involvement. Much of the confiscated art that Hildebrand Gurlitt worked with was sold to the United States to fund the Nazi war effort.

At this time Switzerland, Austria and Germany are working together with the German government playing the most significant role as they fund the task force and will have to release art to Bern. A few pieces have been cleared for release to descendants of survivors. Woman with Fan by Matisse (top of page) was found to belong to the art dealer Paul Rosenberg and has been released to his granddaughter. Max Lieberman's painting of Two Riders on a Beach was released to the descendants of David Friedmann, its prior owner. While Lieberman died prior to the war, his widow committed suicide prior to her deportation.

Guritt has occasionally sold artwork in order to fund his life. Amazingly he sold a Max Beckman for 200,000 Euros in the midst of this controversy.

The question was asked "Why Bern?" Shendar noted that Switzerland was the main agent for French art confiscated and sold to the US.

This saga with its many twists and turns promises to continue for years to come. The fact that seventy years have passed and knowledge has been lost means that it is likely that many paintings may not be returned to the descendants of the original owners.

For other reading on these topics please reference:
Lady in Gold by Ann Marie O-Connor
The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel 

Movies titled Woman in Gold and The Monuments Men have also been produced on both topics.

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