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Thu Nov 21 2013 21:06:25

How Should Nazi-Era Discovered Art Stash Be Handled?

By: Julia Wilkinson

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An amazing story in the world of art has been unfolding in Germany. Some 1,400 works of art, including pieces by such renowned painters as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse, was discovered in the Munich apartment of a Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was among the dealers favored by the Nazis to handle what Hitler considered "degenerate" art. According to The Wall Street Journal, the German government estimates that hundreds of these works may have been looted by the Nazis from Jewish people.

Today the German government began to release a list of the works on the Lost Art Internet Database, which included: "Moorish Conversation on a Terrace" by Eugene Delacroix; "Riders on the Beach" by Max Liebermann; "Seated Woman / Woman Sitting in Armchair" by Henri Matisse; "Allegory/Allegorical Scene" by Marc Chagall; and "Study of a Woman Nude, Standing, Arms Raised, Hands Crossed Above Head" by Auguste Rodin.

The find boggles the mind, as does some of the other parts of the story: that these masterpieces were discovered "stacked up behind piles of expired canned goods and old boxes," according to an article on; that Hildebrand fled Dresden with the works and stashed them for a while in a castle; and that his reclusive son Cornelius has a strange attachment to these paintings, speaking about them like people and saying he kept his favorites in a suitcase, taking them out and admiring them every night.

So now what? The German government is investigating the find, but some cite at least a couple problems. One, an expired statute of limitations on a law that would hold Gurlitt accountable if the works were stolen. Two, the fact that a law that's been in place since 1938, which allowed the Nazis to seize the works, is still in place today.

Why is this law still there? "Repeal or reform of the 1938 law could unravel an intricate web of art deals involving such works that have been negotiated around the world in the decades since, something that even many museum curators...are loath to consider," according to an article in The New York Times.

Some of the art works were ripped off museum walls; others, per Hildebrand's own admission in an unpublished piece written in 1955, came "from emigrating customers and friends, from people who had the foresight to offload their pictures," according to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, "How to Handle That Nazi-Era Art Trove: Germany must ensure that the treasures found in a Munich apartment are restored to their rightful owners" (by J.D. Bindenagel and Owen Pell). This suggests that "Gurlitt was actively dealing in art with those fleeing the Nazi regime." That and that after two years of investigation, "hundreds of works are already viewed as looted - provides grounds for the state to step in to safeguard the collection," write Bindenagel and Pell.

But, "If Gurlitt is in fact the owner of the pieces that were discovered in his apartment, current European law will likely protect his ownership of the art," says E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney who is also the president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in an LA Times piece.

"Laws in Europe are terrible for the recovery of artwork. If they're in private hands, there's virtually no way of recovering them," he added.

However, on the other hand, "Most original owners will be identifiable," writes Robin Simon, art critic of The Daily Mail in a piece. Most of the paintings involved in this find will have been recorded in catalogues and sale records, he says. But, "there will be relatively few descendants around to come forward and plead their case." And, he says, "if all the heirs fail to materialise, Cornelius Gurlitt, in a bitter twist of fate, could be legally entitled to keep some these paintings - once denigrated as abominations by Hitler, but now declared almost beyond price."

Two heirs have already come forward: Michael Hulton, of San Francisco, great-nephew of famous art collector Alfred Flechtheim, secured a share of the sale price of £720,000 after Cornelius Gurlitt put up for auction a painting, the Lion Tamer by Max Beckmann, that had belonged to Hulton's great uncle. Apparently the piece had originally been given to Flechtheim by the painter himself in 1931.

And, apparently, one of the Matisses had been seized in France from the Rosenberg family, according to Meike Hoffmann, an art historian investigating the hoard.

What to do? Bindenagel and Pell suggest four steps: First, retain a major auction house to assist  in investigating the paintings.

Second, "establish an online library of all the art to provide up-to-date information on the Gurlitt Collection, so that potential claimants may research the works of art."

Third, "organize a public exhibition of the Gurlitt Collection (with an online portal) to broaden public disclosure about the collection."

Fourth, "authorize the Limbach Commission, which oversees the return of Holocaust-looted art owned by the German state, to oversee claims relating to the collection." It should apply the German law that was put in place after World War II, which presumed that property owned by individuals persecuted by the Nazis and transferred after Hitler took power either was looted or turned over under duress, they write.

The whole saga made me think of two people who essentially lost everything to the Nazis, but fled and eventually became successful in America: legendary bookseller H.P. Kraus, and mail-order magnate Lillian Vernon. Kraus had to abandon his stock of some 100,000 books; Vernon (nee Menasche) could see her old home, occupied by Nazis, from the place the family was forced to relocate.

At least the good news everyone can agree on: art once thought to be lost forever has now been found.

How would you handle the collection if it were up to you? Do you agree with Bindenagel and Pell? What do you think will happen to the collection? Should there be a live and/or online exhibition of all the works? Post a comment here!

Comments (7) | Permalink

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by: FREDDY This user has validated their user name.

Fri Nov 22 06:59:23 2013

Find the rightful owners would be the honest thing to do. The rest - put in museum for everyone to enjoy. If allowed to remain where found. I believe they will end up being destroyed.
These were stolen art pieces during a period of genocide by a lunatic. This act and the Hitler party should be remembered for the senseless crimes and criminals.  

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This user has validated their user name. by: Captain Nemo

Fri Nov 22 09:38:56 2013

The Captain believes...

Two principles come to mind - Fairness for the original owners, and the basic idea that no one should ever profit from evil.

With that in mind, the estate of the current owner gets absolutely nothing.  They didn't buy the art and only came into it's possession by affiliation with Nazis. If anything, they should feel lucky they are not in prison - or worse.

Find the ancestors of the original owners.  Yes, it could take years.  Doing the right thing seldom is the easy thing.

In the meantime, all the art becomes the possession of an international trust until ownership is established.  Art that cannot be placed, is sold at public auction to support the trust.

But, this is a European thing, and Euro laws are strange to most American sensibilities.  But the first thing is to get the art out of Germany and into a neutral location.  How the Germans handle anything ''Nazi'' is inconsistent and subject to internal politics.  

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by: dsrtdwg1 This user has validated their user name.

Fri Nov 22 14:05:05 2013

I am amazed at the ''feel good'' responses. The articles states that some may have been legitimatly traded.

If an heir has claim to a piece, it should be theirs.

I do not support the confiscation laws that are in place in our country...are you fully behind what the DEA,IRS,Treasury and local enforecment does here?

Not always cut and dried.

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This user has validated their user name. by: iheartjacksparrow

Fri Nov 22 15:01:32 2013

If all the art was stolen from Jewish people, why not donate all of it to a place like the Simon Wiesenthal Center where it can be appreciated by everyone, and still honor the people the art was taken from.

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by: JLynnPro This user has validated their user name.
Web Site

Mon Nov 25 14:29:39 2013

I agree with some of the others:  Return it to heirs, if they can be found and/or donate it to museums, Jewish Heritage organizations, etc.

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by: Cassie This user has validated their user name.

Wed Nov 27 13:31:55 2013

I've Identified Nazi-era goods, there are numerous non-profits that try to retrieve to rightful owners or heirs that take average 15 years in litigation.

My take war spoils yes there are laws encourage the dealings cause sales generate tax revenues war re-build desperate nations or this case recession era economies.

The means I have dealt as a dealer is research self, owners/heirs - report and go towards commissions and negotiate the acquisition settlement (some times there are no heirs due extermination the holocaust). It varies per nations but I usually like to negotiate fair acquisition terms (no profit just expenses of recover)- shipping/ insurance/delivery/authenticate: and settle agreement to re-establish into either a holocaust museum or the auction where all profits go towards the dispersal of non-profit holocaust survivors.

There are issues when there are heirs the nation stolen from at the time will try to intercept for their nations museum's - this is where I seek non-profit tribunals for clemency and act as negotiator - 1)usually auction that the museum can bid and heirs receive the proceed.
2) Heir retains ownership but the pieces negotiated as term loan for the  museum to garner proceed funds in exhibitions.
3) The piece goes directly towards ownership of Jewish/Holocaust/humanitarian Rights organizations and placed under contractual loan Museum viewings setting up display fundraising gallery viewing where the proceeds go to the organizations, heirs and museums  these are usually temporary installations that travel among various museums with cooperation display grants the original owners history and details or any research into it's recovery.

The third is my favorite but hardest to negotiate - it's a fund raiser for human rights organizations, Supports various even holocaust museums, if a family name eliminated then re-establishes a living memorial.

The one piece I've seen return is to a concentration camp - it was the slat boards under the bunk beds where names, dates of death and crude charcoal or carvings some showing the slain images - it has placed new names upon the registry of missing...I rescued from the trash apparently a holocaust survivor and neighbor died he had the boards made into travel trunks - They are now in the Czech Republic still in process and research. Some art was signed via known Jewish artists....The process for determination and historical accuracy takes years before they can be properly displayed back to society taken the sensitivity of these pieces. As you want to present them back with remorse,respect and return a sense of dignity to the lives when presenting the worst of inhumanity.    

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This user has validated their user name. by: permacrisis

Thu Nov 28 09:34:08 2013

Just digitize it, give the hi-res scans to Google, and let everyone enjoy it.

Then let a bunch of unenlightened numbskulls fight over the originals ad infinitum.

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