Lift the veil from the Nazi art cache

Art historian Meike Hoffmann speaks to the media about the seizure of Nazi art.
(Johannes Simon / Getty Images)

Grainy photographs of what appears to be a lithograph by Otto Dix show a bourgeois matron rendered as a ghoulish skull adorned in an outlandish feathered hat, her sunken eyes glowering from beneath a lacy brim and her fur collar a blazing red inferno.

For a crushing Weimar era that shifted into the depravity of National Socialism, this satanic monster leaves not a shred of doubt about the artist’s furious contempt for German society.

The news out of Munich since Sunday has been a real head-turner. It isn’t every day that a hidden trove of 1,406 Old Master and, primarily, Modern paintings, drawings and prints — including Dix’s searing lithograph and many other works apparently unknown before — turns up out of the blue.


Add the horrific crimes of World War II, when epic looting of treasure accompanied the wholesale massacre of innocents, and the wonder grows.

ART: Can you guess the high price?

German authorities say Cornelius Gurlitt, now 80, kept hundreds of works — mostly graphics — that were confiscated under the Nazis or whose sale was coerced from desperate owners trying to raise cash or obtain exit documents out of the country.

Gurlitt apparently inherited the art, including examples by Picasso and Matisse, from his mother; her late husband, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was an art dealer authorized by Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, to buy and sell confiscated art.

That might partly explain what might be the most disturbing aspect of the story: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the government was informed “several months ago” about the case. The cache was discovered in March 2012 but not revealed until now.

Research on so large a number of items is time-consuming, and authorities said at a Tuesday news conference near Munich that they are still trying to determine whether a crime has been committed. They worried that their work would be further hindered if claims began to pour in from anxious potential heirs.


CRITICS’ PICKS: What to watch, where to go, what to eat

Under the circumstances, such bureaucratic caution is hard to justify. We don’t yet know the art historical value of the collection, but we do know the squalid history of the war. Transparency is essential, and the failure to provide it only rubs salt in open wounds.

The Munich case began to surface after Cornelius Gurlitt offered a 1930 painting by Max Beckmann for auction in 2011. It sold in Cologne for 860,000 euros, or about $1.1 million.

Beckmann’s “Lion Tamer” could serve as an emblem of the unfolding episode. It shows the king of the jungle sitting on his haunches atop a stool, head tossed back and paws held together as if in prayer; a bare-chested circus trainer stands before him, hands on hips and fully exposed. The picture makes us witness to a tense confrontation between man and nature — fused with a momentary rapprochement in an ancient gladiatorial struggle for power.

Even now, only a handful of the Munich works has been publicly revealed. Toss in the possibility that, according to reports, somewhere between 200 and 300 of the works might have been gathered up for Adolf Hitler’s heinous 1937 exhibition, “Entartete Kunst” — Degenerate Art — and the possibility for shining new light on a dark moment also expands.

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times


In Munich, “Entartete Kunst” was a Nazi propaganda bonanza, an exhibition cataloging what was said to be the corruption of National Socialist principles. The notorious show, which was partly reconstructed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1991, mocked avant-garde art as a foreign infection of pure German ideals. As the Nazi war machine prepared to pulverize resistance, “Entartete Kunst” traveled to Leipzig, Berlin and Düsseldorf (1938), and to Chemnitz, Frankfurt am Main and Vienna (1939), spreading its vile ideological message.

In the midst of the tour, Hitler’s government passed a retroactive Law on the Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art. Records show that 15,997 works of fine art were confiscated from 101 German museums. Some was sold abroad in an effort to raise foreign currency for armaments, and some was traded by Goebbels to pad his own growing collection of Old Masters. Nearly 5,000 works were burned in a massive Berlin bonfire.

Much remains missing. The Munich discovery recalls the 1995 revelation of 74 French paintings confiscated from German private collections by the Soviet Army, when it swept over Eastern Europe and into Berlin at the end of World War II.

Fifteen paintings by Pierre Auguste Renoir, seven by Paul Cezanne, six by Claude Monet, four each by Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, and Edgar Degas’ 1875 “Place de la Concorde” — a big, eccentric landmark of Impressionist painting, long thought destroyed during the war — turned up in storage rooms at the sprawling Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

CHEAT SHEET: Fall arts preview 2013

The 1907 Hague Convention, which Russia and Germany signed, barred the confiscation of “works of art and science” from territory occupied in war. Yet, like the Nazis, the Soviets employed special brigades during World War II for the systematic pillaging of trophy art — so-called because the victor takes it as an emblem of an enemy’s defeat.


The example of the Hermitage trove, though considerably smaller, might shed some light on the news from Munich. The initial St. Petersburg story was likewise big, and several fine pictures turned up. But the stellar Degas turned out to be far and away the most important. Despite objections, the Hermitage kept it — and the unveiling of what was then billed as a “hidden treasure” is now mostly forgotten.

We don’t yet know whether unique major works are among those in Germany, or whether others might have been sold off in the past. Along with Picasso and Matisse, works by such prominent artists as Gustave Courbet, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Dix, Franz Marc, Marc Chagall, Albrecht Dürer, Antonio Canaletto and others have been revealed.

But 20 months after the Munich discovery, it would be shocking if news of something of similar stature to the Hermitage Degas was still being withheld by German authorities.

But you never know. Stranger things have happened.