Inside the Secret Market for Nazi-Looted Art

ARTnews 29 January 2014
By Jonathan Petropoulos

The German dealer who left 1,400 works to his son was part of a network of dealers and others in Munich who helped implement the Nazi looting program, conceal stolen works, and sell them after the war

he discovery of approximately 1,400 pictures that belonged to the dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt and were concealed in the Munich apartment of his son, Cornelius Gurlitt, has made headlines worldwide. We can all be grateful that so many masterpieces escaped destruction and we can hope that they will come back into public view.

At the same time, the cache raises a host of questions. For starters, how did the Gurlitts obtain all these works? And what are the broader implications of this hoard that was hidden for almost 70 years? What does it tell us about the fate of the thousands of artworks that went missing during World War II?

Art historian and dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt amassed a huge collection that his son Cornelius (pictured) protected in his Munich apartment for almost 70 years.©FAMEFLYNET INC.

Art historian and dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt amassed a huge collection that his son Cornelius (pictured) protected in his Munich apartment for almost 70 years.

While we will never resolve all the mysteries, the Gurlitt affair points to certain important developments that contributed to the concealment of Nazi-looted art. Perhaps most notably, it shows how postwar Munich became the center of a network of art dealers, museum officials, and art historians who had helped implement the Nazi looting program and then rehabilitated their careers after the war. These plunderers concealed looted artworks and then fostered a secret market that enabled them to traffic in those works over the ensuing decades. Munich was a magnet for these complicit dealers.

One of the most prosperous cities in Germany, Munich had long been a center of the art trade and had an arts infrastructure that afforded these experts myriad opportunities. Until 1951, Munich was the home of the Americans’ Central Collecting Point (CCP), which served as the heart of the Allies’ restitution efforts in postwar Europe. Many of the Nazi art experts had been interned at war’s end in Alt-aussee in the nearby Austrian Alps, and were then brought to Munich to continue their interrogations. The plunderer of Poland, Kajetan Mühlmann, for example, cooperated with the Americans, identifying works passing through the Munich CCP, until Polish officials demanded his extradition in 1948, when he fled during the night through an unlocked window. The Americans failed to pursue him, or at least not with any energy or conviction, and he spent the remainder of his days in the Munich area.

And herein lies another key factor in the concealment of looted art. With the onset of the Cold War, the Americans transferred most of the responsibility for denazification to the West Germans, and from then on intervened in only the most blatantly irresponsible decisions. Among those individuals found guilty of complicity in the crimes of the Nazis, many lightened their sentences by way of the appeals process and an array of amnesty provisions (including the youth amnesty of 1951) which set them back on their way into positions of influence.

Coming through the denazification process not only brought about rehabilitation in most cases, but also meant the end of the paper trail regarding the activities of these second-rank figures. Scholars have had fairly good records concerning the Nazis’ art-looting programs up through 1945, but the careers of the complicit individuals have proven more difficult to reconstruct for the period beginning in the late 1940s.

I encountered this challenge in the late ’90s, when I researched my second book, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. In this study, which focused on the art experts who cooperated with the Nazi leaders, the theme of their postwar rehabilitation arose as a major concern. In order to understand the careers of these figures after 1949, I began interviewing old Nazis who had played a role in the cultural bureaucracy of the Third Reich and were subsequently initiated into the postwar networks.

The best storyteller was Bruno Lohse, who had been Hermann Göring’s art agent in Paris during the war. A former SS man who, at 6’4″ and more than 350 pounds, still had an imposing presence, Lohse had faced some measure of justice at war’s end. After being interrogated by the Americans at Alt-aussee and then in Nuremberg, where he was compelled to testify about Göring’s art-collecting activities, Lohse had been handed over to the French and spent two years in a Paris jail. Following a brief trial in 1950, he managed to return to Germany, where he was first confined to the French zone in Baden-Württemberg and then settled in Munich. Because Lohse did not go through denazification, he was not licensed to work as an art dealer; he therefore described himself as an art “adviser.”

Starting in the 1950s, Lohse helped wealthy Germans amass their collectons. He was always discreet about his clients, but I had the impression that he helped such individuals as the banker Hermann Josef Abs (when I mentioned that name to him, he did not deny it). I always knew that Lohse was not telling me the entire story, and I often doubted his truthfulness (although not sufficiently, I can say in hindsight), but I was grateful for what he did tell me before he died in 2007.

What he told me was that there was a network, centered in Munich, of art dealers and experts who had once worked for the Nazis. Lohse related the saga of Karl Haberstock, who had relocated after the war from bombed-out Berlin to Munich, opening a gallery in the early ’50s. Haberstock lived in an elegant apartment overlooking the English Garden, just below that of Walter Andreas Hofer, who had been the director of Göring’s art collection. Lohse and Hofer had been rivals, and Lohse didn’t care much for Haberstock either. Lohse said that those in the know called their English Garden apartment building “das Braun Haus,” a play on the Nazi Party’s headquarters, the Brown House, which had been located about a kilometer away.

Members of this network did not always like one another, and there was sometimes an element of competition among them, but they were connected by history and mutual interest. Lohse, however, was fond of Haberstock’s widow, Magdalene, whom he visited every week after her husband’s death in 1956. Lohse may even have helped her sanitize her husband’s papers before she gave them to the Municipal Art Gallery in Augsburg. Karl and Magdalene also donated their art to the gallery, and were feted as civic heroes (this included a street named after the Nazi dealer).

Lohse was also friendly with Maria Almas-Dietrich, who sold more works to Hitler than any other dealer during the war. When Dietrich’s daughter, Mimi, took over the business, she also became part of this network (Mimi had been a close friend of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress and, briefly, wife). The Galerie Almas occupied premises on the fashionable Odeonsplatz; a brass plaque remained in place there until the early 2000s.

Just down the street was the Julius Böhler firm (which also continued under subsequent generations). Julius Böhler Jr. had sold a great deal of art to the Nazis and had worked with Haberstock during the war to buy treasures belonging to members of the Gutmann family of the Netherlands. A scion of the Gutmann family, founders of the Dresdner Bank, Friedrich Gutmann believed that he had a deal with the Nazis to escape to Italy during the war, but he and his wife were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp via Berlin. He was beaten so badly that he subsequently died; Louise, his wife, was deported to Auschwitz, where she also perished. Others in the Munich network included Adolph Wüster, the cultural attaché at the German Embassy in Paris during the war, who played a key role in plundering operations.

Lohse was part of several networks centered in Munich. One of these involved old Nazis. Lohse remained devoted to the memory of Göring and whiled away his days looking at old photos of the Reichsmarschall as well as the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) art plundering headquarters in Paris that Göring and Lohse had effectively co-opted. A key figure in this circle was Göring’s daughter, Edda, who still lives in central Munich. When Lohse died, he reportedly left some of his art to Edda Göring.

Another of Lohse’s networks extended to Switzerland. The Allies compelled the Swiss to restitute 71 looted paintings in the late 1940s, but they did not get them all—and the trafficking of plundered art continued during the postwar era. As it turns out, Lohse used a Zurich lawyer named Frederic Schöni to create a foundation in nearby Liechtenstein. Its misleading name was Schönart (which suggested a connection to the attorney), but the foundation actually belonged to Lohse. He used it to conceal artworks—some of them, as we now know, looted.

Schönart was just one component in the Swiss connection. Lohse knew an array of Swiss dealers—some of whom he had met during the war when he helped trade modern art looted by the ERR for more desirable works.

Considering that he had a Jewish grandmother and a passion for modern art (which most Nazis disliked), Hildebrand Gurlitt was an unlikely figure to cooperate with the Nazis in the disposal of the “degenerate” art purged from German state collections that began in 1938. It is even more astonishing that Gurlitt went on to become an agent for Hitler and helped the dictator acquire works for the Führermuseum planned for the Austrian city of Linz (Hitler’s adopted hometown). But as a “Mischling Second Degree”—that is, as a “Mixed Race Person to the Second Degree” according to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935—it was not out of the question for him to live and work in Nazi Germany. Many such individuals suffered persecution and were murdered during the war, but others survived. For someone like Gurlitt, with his knowledge of art, his international connections, and his friends in the Nazi cultural bureaucracy (perhaps most notably, Hermann Voss, the second director of the Führermuseum), an accommodation with the Nazis proved possible.

Gurlitt was most certainly part of a network of dealers who worked for the Nazi leaders. He had special travel passes signed by high-ranking officials and access to highly prized foreign currency, evidence of his privileged status. Lohse even mentioned him as one of the dealers who had access to the ERR facility in Paris (which Lohse effectively controlled in 1943–44). Gurlitt himself later told the Monuments Men (the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives section of the U.S. Army, which was charged with protecting cultural property), that he was never in the ERR facility and that he had met Lohse only once, at the opening of an art exhibition. With Lohse imprisoned at the time and deeply implicated in the Nazis’ art-plundering program, Gurlitt had a reason to deny knowing him; the veracity of his account cannot be confirmed.

Gurlitt and Lohse were alike in many ways, although one appeared to be a pure opportunist and the other an SS officer who remained a kind of true believer (even as he denounced the murder of the Jews as a misguided policy and never attempted to justify, let alone deny, the Holocaust). Both apparently enriched themselves during the war by embezzlement and corruption. While we do not know with any precision what Gurlitt passed on to his son, Cornelius (at least at the time this article was written, the German authorities had released only a partial list), the initial press reports suggest that Hildebrand Gurlitt held on to approximately 315 works that were purged from German state museums and initially provided to him on consignment.

Like the other three main dealers who were engaged by Joseph Goebbels’s Reich Ministry for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda to sell off (or “liquidate” in Nazi parlance) the “degenerate” works, Gurlitt received a 25 percent commission. He had access to the ministry’s storage facilities and could sign out works, but he did not own them at first. It was possible for the dealers to purchase the works themselves from the ministry, and Gurlitt evidently did so: the extant documentation shows that in 1940 he bought 200 works for 4,000 Swiss francs (about $930), an average of $4.65 per picture (he purchased another 115 from the ministry in 1941). Certain other works in the Gurlitt cache apparently belonged to Nazi victims (works from the collections of the Jewish dealers Alfred Flechtheim and Paul Rosenberg have been reported, as have 181 pictures from a Dresden Jew forced to sell his collection after 1933).

Both Gurlitt and Lohse were, to say the least, facile liars. Gurlitt told the Allies that most of his art had been burned in the February 1945 bombing of Dresden (the Kaitzer Strasse residence was in fact destroyed, but not the art). Part of Gurlitt’s holdings—117 paintings, 19 drawings, and 72 decorative objects—fell into the hands of the Americans and were processed at the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, but he evidently provided explanations that satisfied the Monuments Men as the latter dealt with an avalanche of cultural property.

And like Lohse, the Gurlitts—both Hildebrand and Cornelius—used the Swiss network to sell their dubious works. When Cornelius was intercepted by Bavarian customs officials in September 2010 on a train from Zurich to Munich and asked if he had any foreign currency, he admitted that he was carrying €9,000 (about $12,200). This money, according to the German magazine Focus, was in crisp, new €500 notes, which Cornelius had reportedly received from the Bern dealer Eberhard Kornfeld. A principal in the well-known firm of Gutekunst & Klipstein, Kornfeld has been at the center of other cases involving Nazi-looted art. The full extent of the relationship between Kornfeld and Cornelius Gurlitt remains unclear. Asked about the money, Kornfeld claimed that he had not seen Gurlitt since 1990.

In our numerous conversations over the course of some ten years, Lohse never mentioned encountering either Hildebrand or Cornelius Gurlitt in the postwar period. Hildebrand Gurlitt died, in a car crash, in November 1956. Yet significantly, an art dealer who was close to Lohse and also initiated into these networks, acknowledged recently, “In Munich art-dealing circles one knew that the Gurlitt family had [or ’disposed over’] an extensive collection of art. Yet, to be sure, one is surprised by the massive quantity that was found with Cornelius Gurlitt.”

The artworks concealed by the Gurlitts and Lohse were not ordinary or neutral assets. These pictures were inextricably linked to the history of Nazi Germany. It was the purging of modern artworks from state museums that signaled Hitler’s more radical and aggressive course for his regime in 1937.

By taking artworks from Holocaust victims, the Nazis dehumanized them and buttressed their racist views about the inferiority of Jews and other undesirables. The looting also showed the perpetrators how they could enrich themselves.

The connection between art looting and the Holocaust was not evident when the experts went through the denazification process during the early postwar period. The primary concern for the Monuments Men was the recovery and restitution of the artworks. But Lohse’s past eventually caught up with him. In 2006, the year before his death, German authorities investigated him in connection with the death of August Liebmann Mayer, a German Jewish art historian, curator, and collector who had fled the Reich in 1933 but got caught in the South of France during the war. Evidence suggested that Lohse had pressured Mayer to reveal the location of his art and, when he didn’t succeed, played a role in Mayer’s deportation to Auschwitz, where he died in March 1944.

Because the German authorities have not released a complete list of the works found in Cornelius’s apartment, we do not yet know the deeper implications of this collection. Did Hildebrand Gurlitt acquire these works from people under duress? Did he actively work to thwart the efforts of victims and their heirs to recover stolen property? Did he and his son previously sell off other works—and to whom?

Another deeper implication concerns geography, which, as every historian knows, exerts an influence in profound and varied ways. It is not a coincidence that Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein form an interlinking “golden quadrangle.” Bavaria gave rise to the Nazi movement. Austrians have a legacy of denying their Nazi past and, until the passage of the art restitution law of 1998, lagged behind other countries in returning looted art. Switzerland’s culture of secret banking and its location in the center of Europe, not to mention its neutral status, has long made it the favored locale for laundering stolen assets. And Liechtenstein, which has more foundations than people (around 37,000), makes Switzerland look like a paragon of transparency. In this light, it is perhaps not surprising that Cornelius Gurlitt not only lives in Munich but also possesses a domicile in Salzburg, Austria. For decades, the crafty exploitation of the “golden quadrangle” constituted a hallmark of the looted-art network.

With perhaps a handful of exceptions, the Nazi art plunderers are no longer among us. But, as Cornelius Gurlitt shows, their sons and heirs are—and so is their legacy. As the generational transition from those who were alive during World War II plays out, it is more important than ever that we confront this legacy.

Jonathan Petropoulos is John V. Croul Professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College in California. His forthcoming book is Artists Under Hitler: The Seduction of Power and the Fate of Modernism in Nazi Germany (Yale University Press).
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