BERLIN – The mysterious discovery of 1,400 works of art, apparently collected by a well-known but shady German dealer under the Nazis, continued to ripple disturbingly through Germany and the art world Sunday, prompting reports of nefarious deals with Adolf Hitler and calls for Germans to do more to return lost works to Jewish heirs scouring the world for works confiscated under Nazi rule.
The Bild newspaper reported that the dealer – an art connoisseur named Hildebrand Gurlitt who variously supported artists banned by the Nazis but also dealt in stolen art with Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels – had done a deal in 1940 with Goebbels to pay 4,000 Swiss francs for 200 pieces of “degenerate art,” as the Nazis called modern European works that they considered distorted human images and depictions of animals or landscapes.
In southwestern Germany, meanwhile, the police said they had recovered 22 “valuable” artworks after a call from someone who gave an address just outside Stuttgart to go there and retrieve them.
Deidre Berger, the head of the American Jewish Committee in Germany, also issued a call to the German government to move decisively to clear up ownership questions. A special parliamentary committee should be established, she said, and the entire legal situation reviewed.
“It is a disgrace that laws are still in existence that justify injustice,” Berger said in a statement, referring to Nazi-era laws that leave the ownership status of some confiscated art unclear.
She also noted the particular poignancy of having the art trove come to light as Jews gathered in Berlin this weekend to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1938 pogroms known as “Kristallnacht,” the beginning of Hitler’s murderous persecution of the Jews.
Paris Match published what it said was a photograph of Cornelius Gurlitt, who reportedly kept the 1,400 works of art stashed for decades in the Munich apartment belonging to his family. A neighbor of Gurlitt’s in Salzburg confirmed that the picture was that of the elderly man rarely seen at his residence. The authorities disclosed the find, made in February 2012, to a stunned art world, setting off a scramble to establish ownership and appeals to the German authorities to act quickly to return any works confiscated by the Nazis to their rightful owners.
Bild reproduced in its Sunday edition what it said was a contract between Hildebrand Gurlitt (Cornelius Gurlitt’s father) and Goebbels, with an attached list of the 200 works, that gave the art dealer ownership upon payment of 4,000 Swiss francs into a special account bearing the initials E.K., for Entartete Kunst, the German term for “degenerate art.”
After World War II, the art dealer told Allies and German authorities that most of his collection and all of his inventory had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Twenty to 25 works listed as belonging to the older Gurlitt were included in an exhibition that toured the United States in the mid-1950s. Gurlitt at the time led the prestigious Düsseldorfer Kunstverein, a post he held until he was killed in a traffic accident in 1956.
The police in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg said Sunday that they had received a call from a resident of Kornwestheim, about six miles north of Stuttgart, that sent officers to a house in the town Saturday, where they recovered 22 works of art.
The police statement said that the caller, who was not identified but was named by Bild as Nikolaus Frässle, the brother-in-law of Cornelius Gurlitt, told the police that unspecified news media reports had led him to fear for the safety of the works.
After World War II, the elder Gurlitt was interrogated by the Allies, and his collection – listed as a few hundred works – was kept until 1950, when it was returned to him.
The origin of those pieces – and of the far larger cache that was found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt – is unclear.
German authorities have said that research is needed before they can publish a list, but museums and the heirs of Jewish and other collectors who were stripped of their works by the Nazis have urged swift action to return the art to its rightful owners.