Treasures stolen by Nazis

[12 Nov 2013]


History sometimes brutally resurfaces. The last few days in Germany is a case in point with information made public concerning over 1,400 works stolen by the Nazis and discovered in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt in the spring of 2011. Among them, hundreds of paintings by modern masters including Max BECKMANN, Emil NOLDE, Franz MARC, Henri MATISSE, Pablo PICASSO, Pierre-Auguste RENOIR, and Paul KLEE among others… all “collected” by the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius Gurlitt’s father. amassées par le marchand d’art Hildebrand Gurlitt, père de Cornelius.

Some paintings were purchased, others appropriated from Jewish collectors in the ’30s and ’40s. Described by the Nazis as “degenerate art” and banned from museums, Hildebrand Gurlitt was entrusted with the mission of selling these paintings and raising funds to establish Linz as powerful cultural capital of the Third Reich. The dealer took advantage of his mission to build his own private collection of works, a collection that he declared lost after the terrible bombing of Dresden in February 1945.

The existence of this treasure was made public after months of research – conducted in the utmost secrecy – to establish the identity of the works, their origin and their beneficial owners. A list of the works has not yet been published, but the presence of a Matisse painting has been advanced, a work stolen by the Nazis in 1941 from a bank in Libourne where the great art dealer Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959) thought it would be safe. Several works belonging to Rosenberg – who was Pablo Picasso’s main dealer as of 1918 – are apparently on the list. Before leaving Paris and seeking refuge in New York, he tried to hide hundreds of paintings by major names from the Nazis by scattering them around France and elsewhere. These names included Picasso and Matisse of course, but also Braque, Monet, Delacroix and Van Gogh … Most of the works that remained in France (about 260, including a hundred or so at his home in Floirac ) ended up in Nazi hands.

Some of these treasures will emerge on the market in the coming months and years ahead and the history to which they are closely related will significantly add to their singularity, probably rendering any attempts to estimate their value pointless exercises. Among the paintings that have already been returned to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, there is a Claude Monet from his Water Lilies series (stolen in Floirac and returned to Anne Sinclair in 1999), the artist’s highest-value series , whose auction record reached USD 71.8 million (more than $80.5m including costs, Water Lily Pond, 1919, 100.4 cm x 201cm) at Christie’s in London on 24 June 2008.

Other modern works returned to their rightful owners have already had an impact on auction history including Fernand Léger’s Femme en rouge et vert (1914) which fetched $20 million (more than $22.4m including costs) on 4 November 2003 at Christie’s New York; Henri Matisse’s L’ Odalisque, harmonie bleue (1937) sold for $30 million (more than $33.6m including costs) on 6 November 2007 at Christie’s New York, and four works by Gustav Klimt were acquired for a total of $192 million on 8 November 2006, again at Christie’s. Among them, Portrait of Adele Bloch- Bauer II set a new auction record for Klimt when it fetched $78.5 million ($87.9 m incl. fees) .