Treasure trove of art stolen from a Jewish family rediscovered, identified as Nazi loot

Preparatory sketch with a drawn frame for an illustration of the Comedy, Les Moissonneurs, 1768, by Charles Dominique Joseph Eisen (1720-1778). Credit: Charles Dominique Joseph Requirements/Courtesy of the Bundeskunsthalle museum

BERLIN —A crowd gathers happily around a table in the 18th-century artwork of the French artist Charles Dominique Joseph Requirements. The scene hides the artwork of the dark history: It was stripped almost 80 years ago from a Jewish family in occupied Paris.

German researchers announced last week that the illustrations and the other three drawings have been identified as Nazi loot. They are now on display to the public here in the Gropius Bau in the exhibition “Gurlitt: a Status Report.”

The drawings once decorated, the house of the rich Deutsch de la Meurthefamily, who earned a fortune in the oil industry, and the sponsored early aviation efforts. After the invasion of France, Nazi officers seized the house and used the house as a depot for the storage of works of art and furnishings, plundering of Jewish homes as part of an operation known as “Möbel Aktion.” One of the Deutsch de la Meurthewomen was murdered in Auschwitz. [Images: Missing Nazi Diary Resurfaces]

The rediscovery of the drawings is a rare recovery of Nazi loot to the Gurlitt task force, a group of German researchers who are trying to clarify the murky origins of a huge treasure trove of the art of a Nazi-era dealer for the past few years.

“There are many stories behind the artworks,” said Andrea Baresel-Brand, head of the Department of Art that has been Lost and Documentation for the German Lost Art Foundation. “This is always a very moving thing. When you come for a return, there is always a very tragic history for is always connected to a work of art.”

Gurlitt art trove

In 2012, German authorities introduced the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive old man who was investigated for tax evasion. Inside they found hundreds of works of famous artists, such as Picasso, Monet, Renoir and Rodin. The man had inherited the collection from his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a dealer who worked with the Nazis to acquire art for the planned museums, such as Hitler never realized Führermuseum in Linz. Hildebrand Gurlitt was also one of the four authorized dealers to sell art considered “degenerate” because it is modern, “un-German” or created by the Jews and communists.

The German authorities seized the art from Cornelius Gurlitt Munich apartment and another apartment in Salzburg, Austria, in 2012. When the news of the treasure was publicly in 2013, the German government set up a task force for the study of the origin or source of the art, to determine whether one of the 1,566 pieces were looted or unethically acquired during the Nazi regime.

So far, only six works are refundable, including a portrait of a lady stolen from Jewish French politician Georges Mandel in Paris, identified last year by a repair in the cloth and on the public again in Berlin. The task force has faced some criticism about the slow pace of the investigation.

“The Gurlitt art trove, the term ‘provenance research is now known to very many people, and I think we have a new awareness for younger generations about what happened in the Nazi era, how people were robbed and plundered,” Baresel-Brand, told Live Science. She added that she thinks the public is also more aware of how vague the origin of a work of art can be, even after a thorough investigation. “Even though we have a good funding and excellent researchers, they also may not be clear to an origin, to say that this is a work that came out of a family or not.”

In the span of 80 years, works of art can change, images, documents can be lost or distorted, archives can be destroyed, and the titles of the pieces may change, Baresel-Brand, explained, and the victims of the Holocaust had not evidence of the objects they have lost. [6 Archaeological Forgeries That Could Have Changed History]

New drawings to come to light

The four newly discovered drawings were not part of Cornelius Gurlitt’s treasure trove.

Origin researchers found that Cornelius Gurlitt sister Benita Gurlitt, had also acquired several works of art of their father. Among these works were the Deutsch de la Meurthefamily drawings. The researchers pointed posted a message for the drawings on the German Lost Art database in July 2017. An unnamed owner came forward with the works and agreed to the return of the drawings. The descendants of the Deutsch de la Meurthe family gave their approval for the works to be displayed. [30 of the world’s Most Valuable Treasures That are Still Missing]

The records of the Möbel Aktionprogram were destroyed, so there is a gap in the paper trail connecting Gurlitt to the attached drawings.

“It remains unclear whether Gurlitt had access to the archives of this sort or could obtain ‘goods’ of them through intermediaries,” the exhibition catalog says. “What is certain is that the family does not voluntarily leave of four working behind and that they should therefore be considered as Nazi-looted cultural assets.”

About 200 other pieces of the suspicious art from the inventory on the screen at the”Gurlitt: a Status Report” exhibition. (The works of art were for the first time to see in November 2017 in a joint exhibition atSwitzerland the Kunstmuseum Bern and Germany, the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn.) Most of the “degenerate” art on display —by artists such as Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, George Grosz and Otto Dix —is not considered to be Nazi loot, because these pieces were mainly from the German public institutions.

Baresel-Brand, told Science that she thinks that Hildebrand Gurlitt was ‘a very intelligent person who took advantage of a situation” and noted that the criticism should also be directed at the shortcomings of the post-war society in Germany. “You have a lot of continuities —people come back to their offices, as Hildebrand did.”

After the war, Hildebrand Gurlitt was acquitted at his denazification trials, in part because he pointed to the Jewish heritage of his grandparents, the recasting of himself as a victim of the Nazi regime. His art collection was briefly seized by the U.S. Army’s “Monuments Men” team, but most of the works were returned to him, after he swore that his business records were destroyed and that none of the collection came from Jewish families. He went to the director of the Kunstverein Museum in Düsseldorf.

“He wanted to survive,” Baresel-Brand said. “He wanted his family to live a happy life. This is understandable, but it is of course not to justify his actions.”

Original article on Live Science.

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