The Jewish Curator Who Helped Hitler Loot Europe’s Art

“I have loved nothing more in my life than my pictures.” —Cornelius Gurlitt

In A Nutshell

In February 2012, Munich police and tax investigators raided the apartment of a quiet hermit named Cornelius Gurlitt and found 1,400 works of art worth up to $1 billion. Many of the works were plundered from Jewish private collections in World War II. They were the legacy of Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand, a one-quarter Jew who helped Hitler steal them. Bending to the public outcry, Cornelius decided to return the plundered works to the families who once owned them.

The Whole Bushel

In the 1930s, Hildebrand Gurlitt was the curator of two German art museums but was fired partly because of his Jewish grandmother. By then, Hitler had come to power and had declared a “merciless war” against what he considered the work of “degenerate artists” such as van Gogh, Matisse, and Cezanne. Hitler classified degenerate art to be that of “Dadaism, Futurism, Cubism, and the other isms.” Hildebrand, despite his Jewish heritage, remained in Hamburg where he opened a gallery and displayed traditional, safe art. And he began quietly purchasing forbidden degenerate art at bargain prices from Jews who needed money to survive or flee Europe.

One of these was Julius Wollf, a respected editor of a Dresden, Germany newspaper. Because Wollf was Jewish, he was forced to quit the newspaper and his assets were confiscated. In 1935, Wollff sold a painting to Hildebrand for considerably less than it was worth. When asked later where he acquired the painting, Hildebrand claimed it belonged to his father. In 1942, just before Wolff was scheduled to be deported to a concentration camp, he, his wife, and his brother took their own lives.

By 1938, Hildebrand had become an expert on degenerate art, and Joseph Goebbels made him a commissioner tasked with purchasing forbidden works at next to nothing and selling it abroad to fund Hitler’s proposed art museum in Linz, Austria.

When war erupted, Hildebrand was responsible for purchasing or stealing art in Belgium, Holland, and France. He took advantage of desperate Jews and would later claim he did this to protect their art and provide funds for them to escape. If true, it is hard to reconcile this with Hildebrand’s refusal to return or sell back artwork to those same Jewish families after the war.

Nor does it explain why Hildebrand entered abandoned Jewish homes and confiscated art right off the wall. One of his acquisitions—Matisse’s masterpiece, Seated Woman—came from a French bank vault, left there by Paul Rosenberg just before he headed for America.

In 1944, Hildebrand moved his wife and two children—Cornelius and Benita—to Dresden and his home was one of the many obliterated in the famous February 1945 bombings. Hildebrand later claimed the bombing destroyed nearly everything he had.

Three months later, Hildebrand and his family were captured with 47 crates of artworks. The now famous “Monuments Men”—the subject of the recent George Clooney film—examined Hildebrand’s crates and confiscated all but 147 of his pieces as looted art. What they didn’t know was that Hildebrand had two other caches of art hidden elsewhere in Germany.

Article Continued Below

After the war, Hildebrand claimed all the looted art he acquired had been destroyed in Dresden. Beginning in 1953, however, Hildebrand began quietly selling his stolen works. It was a practice his wife continued after Hildebrand’s death in 1956. When Helene died in 1968, 25-year-old Cornelius took over her hidden cache of art.

Already painfully shy, Cornelius became a recluse and had little contact with anyone but his sister. When he first came to the attention of the authorities in 2010, Cornelius had no bank account, no phone book listing, no health insurance, and had never worked a job. He spent his days listening to the radio and fawning over his father’s artworks. They were the love of his life. “I have loved nothing more in my life than my pictures,” he said.

Brandishing a warrant for tax evasion, the police raided Cornelius’s apartment in February 2012 and found 121 framed and 1,300 unframed artworks. Among them were pieces from Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, and Chagall.

The Munich police tried to keep the seizure quiet, but a German newsweekly, Focus, broke the story and Cornelius came under intense public scrutiny. Cornelius’s life as a recluse was over. He was also suffering severe heart problems and was hospitalized a month after the story broke.

At first, Cornelius was defiant. Germany had no restitution law for art stolen by the Nazis. And the statute of limitations for recovering stolen art was 30 years, not 70. It was clear the art cache would eventually be returned to Cornelius.

But as his health deteriorated, along with his and his father’s reputation, he had a change of heart. After months of legal wrangling, Cornelius signed an agreement to allow a task force to find the true owners of any of his paintings. All remaining unclaimed paintings would be donated to a museum in Bern, Switzerland.

Cornelius died a month later, in May 2014. He had no heirs.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo: Hitler viewing looted art, via Times of Israel
Wall Street Journal: Inside the Deathbed Deal With Cornelius Gurlitt to Return Art Looted by Nazis
Vanity Fair: The Devil and the Art Dealer
The Guardian: Munich art hoarder: ‘All I wanted to do was live with my pictures’
Der Spiegel: Art Dealer to the Fuhrer

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!