SALZBURG, Austria — The saga of the trove of artworks hoarded away under the Nazis by the son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt was given a new twist this week with the discovery of a third house in a town in the Austrian state of Styria that may well contain further pieces of art.
The location of the third house in Bad Aussee next to the salt mines where the vast majority of the art looted by the Nazis had been stored had been unknown until now, because it had been in the hands of Hildrebrand’s cousin Wolfgang, who had also gathered art for the Nazis. On the same day that its location was revealed, Austrian officials also admitted that they had apparently “missed” another 180 paintings from a previously discovered residence that had “suddenly” been discovered.
Austrian officials indicated these new works were found in the house in Salzburg of Hildebrand’s son Cornelius Gurlitt, who claimed he had inherited the collection from his father, who took orders from Hitler to buy and sell so-called “degenerate art” to fund Nazi activities during World War II.
The Salzburg house had already been searched, but officials claimed that the new artworks were in a part of the house that was “previously not accessible” — despite the fact that the tiny two bedroom house barely covers 100 square meters of living space. They have also hinted that there may be further artworks still to be revealed.
Cornelius Gurlitt aroused suspicion in 2010 when German customs officials stopped him on a train from Switzerland carrying 9,000 Euro in cash, which although it was below the 10,000 Euro limit which would need to be declared, it had still been high enough to have been reported to tax inspectors.
There may be further artworks still to be revealed
But they only acted on it after he sold Max Beckmann’s “The Lion Tamer,” which was known to have had a questionable provenance.
When authorities raided his Munich apartment in February 2012 on suspicion of tax evasion, they found the vast art collection valued by some at $1.4 billion, but chose to keep it secret while they investigated its origins, a fact that caused international outrage when it was leaked in a report in German magazine Focus.
As part of the investigation they discovered Gurlitt owned a second property in Salzburg, western Austria, and Austrian authorities searched it and sixty art works were reclaimed. Yet they apparently missed another 180 works of art that have now been revealed.
So far the fact that Hildebrand had a cousin, Wolfgang, who was also active on behalf of Hitler in acquiring artworks, has attracted little attention. The question never arose why a man with Jewish ancestry (Hildebrand and Wolfgang had one Jewish grandparent) would have chosen to buy a property in Bad Aussee, the place that Hitler had chosen to stage his last stand, and which was filled with Nazi loyalists.
It is also unknown what access Wolfgang had to the nearby salt mines, huge tunnels that had been in place since Roman Times that featured so spectacularly in the George Clooney film “Monuments Men,” and where the Nazis had stored the largest part of their looted art collection because of the dry air and the fact it was safe from bombs under thousands of tons of solid rock.
The first time it was even raised was when a journalist from the Vienna-based TV station Puls 4 discovered there was a third house that had been used as a storage depot for the Gurlitt family art, although officially at least this property has still not been searched.
When the stations investigative reporter, Caroline Babits, went to interview Cornelius Gurlitt’s lawyer, Dr. Hannes Harting, on February 28, 2014, he appeared to know nothing about the third property. His only reaction was to ban her from using the interview, and to then demand that the show pixelate the images of the Bad Aussee house and banned them from revealing the address.
According to insiders in Bad Aussee, the house was still stuffed with art as recently as 2012
But the house, according to insiders in Bad Aussee spoken to for this report, was still stuffed with art as recently as 2012 when the last occupant, Wolfgang’s sister, had died.
The meeting coincided with the news that the further 180 works had been discovered on the same day as Babits was talking to Dr Harting. Reuters reported that the artwork found in Gurlitt’s second home in Salzburg had risen to 238, “many more than previously thought.” It included a Claude Monet oil painting from 1903 of London’s Tower Bridge, a bronze sculpture by Auguste Renoir and drawings by Gauguin, Cezanne and Picasso.
The investigators have already indicated that the paintings may have been owned by Gurlitt’s grandfather Louis, and thus — unlike other works in Gurlitt’s collection — are not suspected of including art looted by the Nazis, or their “Jewish” agents Wolfgang and Hildebrand. If so it would mean the artworks could remain with the Gurlitt family.
According to paperwork which survived the war, Wolfgang and Hildebrand had been actively working for the Nazis since the early 1930s, before claiming when the Allies arrived that their collections were destroyed and that they, too, were victims.
Allied investigators apparently did not ask too closely how the two with Jewish ancestry managed to survive the frequent denunciations from jealous rivals under the Nazis. They did not have information then that the cousins’ connection with the Nazis dated back to 1937, when the German Ministry for Education and Science sent out a pamphlet to coincide with the “Degenerate Art” show, that declared, “Dadaism, Futurism, Cubism, and the other isms are the poisonous flower of a Jewish parasitical plant, grown on German soil.”
Although he viewed the art as degenerate, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, also saw it as an opportunity “to make some money from this garbage” by selling modern art to overseas buyers. And for that he needed agents.
So a year later when he formed the Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art, Hildebrand was appointed to the four-person commission because of his expertise, his connections to the Jewish community, and his art-world contacts outside Germany.
It was the commission’s job to sell the art abroad, and for that his art dealer cousin Wolfgang, owner of the Bad Aussee home, was the perfect partner. The pair were permitted to acquire degenerate work themselves, as long as they paid for them in hard foreign currency, an opportunity they took full advantage of, acquiring forbidden art at bargain prices from Jews fleeing the country or needing money to pay the devastating capital-flight tax and, later, the Jewish wealth levy.
Hildebrand was later to tell the Monuments Men, who pronounced him and his family as victims of the Nazis, that they had fired him from two museums. They called him a “mongrel” because of his Jewish grandmother. He was doing what he could to save these wonderful and important maligned pictures, which would otherwise have been burned by the SS. He assured them he never bought a painting that was not offered voluntarily.
In fact he had lied about his collection being destroyed in Dresden, and in reality, much of it had actually been hidden elsewhere.
Hildebrand was reinvented as a victim of the Nazis and was elected the director of the Kunstverein, Dusseldorf’s venerable art institution, and in 1956, he died unexpectedly in a car crash. Cornelius his son has meanwhile been declared unfit to manage his affairs because of his age and infirmity, and he is currently being cared for in a private clinic.