The man who perfected the art of stashing

The man who perfected the art of stashing
LAST WISH: The Lion Tamer by Max Beckmann
The story of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a prominent art dealer in Nazi Germany, who hid for decades, with his vast collection of works of art by the world’s most famous artists as his company, is a fascinating one. It’s the kind of story that has art lovers world over sighing in envy: imagine being surrounded by Picassos, Gauguins and Chagalls, every single day; imagine being able to look at them whenever one felt the urge.

When 80-year-old Gurlitt was visited, or shall we say ‘raided’, by the customs officers at his Munich apartment in February 2012, ‘bureaucratically speaking’ he did not exist, since he was not listed in the Munich register of residents. They discovered this and it set off ‘alarm bells’. The raid led to the recovery of around 1,280 paintings and drawings, roughly estimated to be worth more than $1 billion. According to Cornelius, the paintings were inherited from his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, who died when he was 23. The sixth floor apartment, where he lived with his art collection, was earlier occupied by his mother. His sister Benita (possibly younger than him), who lived near Stuttgart, is known to have made regular visits to see her brother, till she also died of cancer a year earlier.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was partly Jewish and described as ‘an exuberant Nazi-era art dealer...who at times worked in the service of the Third Reich’ and is said to have been one of just four people authorised to trade in what the Nazis referred to as ‘degenerate art’. As a result, among those Hildebrand counted as friends were artists who were disliked by the authorities and probably explains how he managed to collect so much art.

As the Allied Forces advanced and German defences fell he decided to move his family to the castle of a friend Baron von Polinitz and loaded them onto a truck and trailer along with his vast art collection. The Allies made things difficult and soon the US military’s unit involved in looking after monuments, fine arts and archives, detained and questioned Hildebrand. He is said to have stated that he had never handled stolen art and the works in his possession were his ‘personal property’. He seems to have managed to convince his investigators as they returned a large number of his artworks, all of which Cornelius inherited.

Thereafter, Cornelius made looking after the family’s art collection his only job. Periodically, when he needed money, he would choose one painting and sell it through art dealers. As he grew older and his health deteriorated, he had to make more frequent trips to the dealers. The last sale that Cornelius made was in 2011, through an auction house in Cologne. The painting was German artist Max Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer, which was sold for ¤884,00 ($ 1.17 million).

It is amazing that for over 50 years, Cornelius Gurlitt was able to hide the fact that he owned such a valuable art collection. He never opened the door for anyone and even kept his windows shut. His favourite works of art were those on paper, which he kept in a small suitcase and looked at them every evening and it was obvious that it was the highlight of his day. When the customs officials confiscated his artworks, he was in tears and later in an interview said the loss of the paintings was more difficult for him to bear than even the loss of his sister.

(The writer is an author and a former art gallery owner)

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