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Nazi War Loot and museums

December 15, 2014

In the last couple of years the German art world has been rocked by the case of the discovery of Cornelius Gurlitt’s major art collection. Cornelius was a recluse who had hidden over 1200 twentieth century masterpieces. He had inherited them from his father Hildebrand who benefited by being one of the Nazi’s approved art dealers. During the 1930s German Jews suddenly had to sell art work, and Hildebrand was able to purchase these items often at a discount. Since Hildebrand’s death in the 50s his son Cornelius hoarded the collection, occasionally selling pieces to maintain a livelihood, he had no other means of income. It was not until 2012 when the tax authorities in Germany chanced upon Cornelius, when the hoard was uncovered.

Josef Gockeln, the mayor of Düsseldorf; Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand; and Paul Kauhausen, director of Düsseldorf’s municipal archives, circa 1949.

Josef Gockeln, the mayor of Düsseldorf; Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand; and Paul Kauhausen, director of Düsseldorf’s municipal archives, circa 1949.

So what has this got to do with museums, and UK museums at that?  Well every Accredited museum in the UK (and there are over 1500) has to agree to the statement of principles on the ‘Spoliation of Works of Art during the Nazi, Holocaust and World War II period’. Whether you are the British Museum or a little community museum run by volunteers, they are all obliged to adhere to these spoliation principles.  If they come across any Nazi War loot within their collection they are obliged to investigate and inform the appropriate authorities, and if necessary return them to the rightful owners.  The Gurlitt case highlights that Nazi loot is still relevant today. Indeed in the UK there is a Cultural Property Advice portal that assists museums with dealing with such matters.

A Picasso from the Gurlitt collection

A Picasso from the Gurlitt collection

Is that the end of the matter? Maybe not. Some of the Gurlitt collections were sold to state Art Galleries & Archives in Germany in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and they are not keen to return them to the original owners or their children. Although the collection was amassed by forced sale in Nazi Germany, this is disputed by Galleries. Hildebrand Gurlitt was an art dealer and may have felt he was merely doing good trade with desperate sellers, albeit in tumultuous times.  It has also been difficult to return these artworks to their original owners because they have remained hidden from public view by hoarders like Gurlitt or off display in Art Galleries. Furthermore Germany has a 30 year statue of limitations. If you have not put in a claim within 30 years of the spoliation you lose your right to claim. Even if it was impossible to claim for an artwork while it was hidden from the public. Finally some Galleries claim that these works should remain in the public domain and not be returned to the original owners as they are far too important to remain in private hands.  This public benefit claim is surprisingly similar to the one justifying the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles remaining in the British Museum and not returning to the Parthenon in Athens. Thats another blog.

The British Museum's Parthenon Marbles on loan to St Petersburg , but not Athens

The British Museum’s Parthenon Marbles on loan to St Petersburg , but not Athens

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