How a painting acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt came to America

The Art Newspaper 30 January 2014
By David D'Arcy

At the same time a cache of art was uncovered in Munich, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced a remarkable donation

Max Beckmann, Bar, Braun, 1944. Photo: © Max Beckmann Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG BILD-KUNST, Bonn

Last November, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) accepted the donation of Max Beckmann’s 1944 painting Bar, Braun (bar, brown). The day before, Focus magazine in Munich revealed that police had seized a cache of some 1,400 works of art from the son of the dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who made a fortune from his trade with and for the Nazi regime. The announcement on Lacma’s blog detailing the history of the work, which Beckmann painted while in exile in Amsterdam, left out a crucial fact—its buyer in September 1944 was the now-notorious Hildebrand Gurlitt.

The dealer visited Beckmann in the autumn of 1944, as Allied troops gathered on the Dutch border, in the company of another dealer, Erhard Goepel. Both Gurlitt and Goepel were in the Netherlands buying paintings for the planned Fuehrer Museum in Linz, Hitler’s hometown.

A spokeswoman for the museum said that Lacma was aware of Gurlitt’s purchase, noting that Bar, Braun was “inherited by Gurlitt’s wife upon his death in 1956”. According to the museum’s blog “Unframed”, the painting “was given in honour of the late Robert Looker, who served as a trustee from 1998 until his death in 2012 and was an especially astute collector of German Expressionism”. The museum has traced the full provenance of the painting, which it says is “complete and without question” (see below). The details were not posted on the website due to the slowness of collections management but would be up soon, said the spokeswoman, who also provided post-war letters from Beckmann recommending Gurlitt as a dealer because of his “fine sensitivity for art”.

In fact, Beckmann, whom the Nazis banned from teaching and selling his work, proved crucial to Gurlitt’s rehabilitation. The dealer organised the artist’s first post-war museum retrospective in Frankfurt in 1947, although Beckmann did not attend. Bar, Braun was included in that show, but it was dated to 1935 and described as a gift from the artist to Gurlitt.

After the war, as galleries in Germany resumed showing work banned by the Nazis as “degenerate art”, Gurlitt possessed more of those paintings than could be found in German museums, which were ordered to remove any Entartete Kunst from their collections in the 1930s. The dealer, who profited from trading in such works, became a prominent lender to exhibitions conceived to resurrect Germany’s noble cultural aspirations.

Those aspirations—and Gurlitt’s—extended beyond Germany. In 1956, the year of his death in a road accident, Gurlitt loaned 24 works to an exhibition in New York of art by Beckmann, Klee, Kokoschka, Kandinsky and others, “German Watercolors, Drawings and Prints, 1905-1955”. The exhibition was sponsored by the Federal Republic of Germany and circulated by the American Federation of Arts (AFA).

The catalogue included more than 100 pictures and described the show as “a mid-century review, with Loans from German museums and galleries, and from the collection of Dr H. Gurlitt, Duesseldorf”. In it, Thomas Messer, then the AFA’s director (and later the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York), thanked “H. Gurlitt… who generously put at my disposal an essential part of the works of art he had collected in a lifetime.”

The exhibition’s curator, Leonie Reygers of Dortmund, noted in her introduction that “Dr H. Gurlitt, director of the Art Association for the Rhine and Westphalia, is the major contributor to the exhibition which, owing to his generosity, could be planned on an impressive scale.”

It was high praise for a man who had purchased work for Hitler’s planned museum, where much of the “collection” was taken from Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.

The timeline of Bar, Braun's travels to America

1956: Painting inherited by Gurlitt’s wife Helene upon his death

1960: Offered at auction at RN Ketterer in Stuttgart but remained unsold upon Helene's death in 1968

1971: Work purchased by Galerie Roman Ketterer in Switzerland

1987: Acquired by the Marvin and Janet Fishman Collection in Milwaukee at Sotheby’s auction in Munich on 28 October

2000: Sold from the Fishman Collection to the Lacma donor at Sotheby’s London on 18 October
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