Germany returns Nazi-looted painting to Jewish heirs

Culture Minister Monika Grütters has handed over the painting, by artist Thomas Couture, back to Jewish heirs at a ceremony in Berlin. The canvas was stolen from French politician Georges Mandel during World War II.

At a ceremony at Berlin's Gropius Bau museum on Tuesday, German Culture Minister Monika Grütters officially returned the painting "Portrait de jeune femme assise" (Portrait of a Seated Young Woman) to its rightful heirs.

The painting by 19th century French painter Thomas Couture (1815-1879) was stolen from its owner, French politician and resistance leader Georges Mandel, by the Nazis during World War II. It was part of the massive collection stockpiled by the reclusive German collector Cornelius Gurlitt, who inherited 1,566 works from his father, Hildebrand, an art dealer for the Nazi regime.

Mandel's heirs appeared alongside Grütters, a representative from the French Embassy and Marcel Bruelhart of the Kunstmuseum Bern, to which Gurlitt had left his collection when he died in 2014.

Speaking at the ceremony, Grütters said, "This case again reminds us that we should never stop our wholehearted work in investigating the Nazis' looting of art, for which Germany is responsible.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Max Beckmann, Zandvoort Beach Cafe, 1934

The watercolor by the Jewish painter Max Beckmann entered Gurlitt's collection only in 1945. Held by the allied occupation forces at the Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden from 1945-1950, it was returned to Hildebrand Gurlitt in 1950. Before working for the Nazi regime, Gurlitt had collected and exhibited modern art, curating Beckmann's last exhibition in 1936 before the artist fled Germany.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Otto Griebel, Veiled Woman, 1926

This work was owned by lawyer and art collector Fritz Salo Glaser. Artists of Dresden's avant-garde scene were his guests in the 1920s — as was the young Hildebrand Gurlitt. It is not known how Gurlitt came to possess the painting. It was confiscated in 1945 and later returned. Of Jewish heritage, Glaser only narrowly avoided deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1945.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, 1903

This painting by the famous impressionist is not suspected to have been looted. The artist sold it to the Durand Ruel Gallery in 1907. The Jewish art merchant and publisher Paul Cassirer is said to have given it to Marie Gurlitt as a present, and she left it to her son Hildebrand Gurlitt in 1923.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Thomas Couture, Portrait of a Seated Young Woman, 1850

This work by the French painter was only recently identified as a looted work of art. A short handwritten note was the clue for the provenance researchers. The picture was quite likely in the collection of the Jewish politician Georges Mandel, whose family stakes a claim to the work. It is not known how it came into Gurlitt's possession.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Auguste Rodin, Crouching Woman, approx. 1882

Hildebrand Gurlitt must have acquired this work by the French sculptor between 1940 and 1945. Previously belonging to the Frenchman Eugene Rudier, it entered circulation in 1919 at an auction by Octave Henri Marie Mirbeau, who is said to have received it as a present from the artist.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

In Gurlitt's apartment

Cornelius Gurlitt hoarded the sculpture along with many other artworks for decades in his Munich apartment. Before his death in 2014, he consented to have his stocks researched and — should they include articles of stolen art — have them returned to their rightful owners in accordance with the Washington Principles on Nazi-looted art.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and Devil, 1513

This copper engraving by Albrecht Dürer once belonged to the Falkeisen-Huber Gallery in Basel. It is not known how it got there or how long it was there however. In 2012 the engraving turned up in Cornelius Gurlitt's collection. "Old masters" like Dürer were very important to the National Socialists' view of art and were often exploited for propaganda.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Edvard Munch, Ashes II, 1899

The provenance of this drawing is completely unknown. It is certain, however, that Hitler considered Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's work "degenerate art." Some 82 pieces by Munch were confiscated in German museums in 1937.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Francois Boucher, Male Nude, undated

Hitler venerated 18th century French painting. He secured exceptional paintings for his own collection by targeting the collection of the Rothschild Family after the annexation of Austria. Hildebrand Gurlitt supplemented them with drawings by renowned French painters. He acquired this work by Boucher from a Parisian art merchant in 1942.

Where did the Gurlitt collection artwork come from?

Carl Spitzweg: Alpine Valley with Dairymaid, 1871

This painting was probably Hitler's personal property from 1934 onward. Not a part of the Gurlitt collection, it has been on loan from the Federal Republic of Germany since 1973 and shown in Dusseldorf's Kunstpalast Museum. The image reflects Hitler's taste in art, and he wished to have such works at the "Führer Museum."

Commitment to returning works

Grütters emphasized the commitment of the German government to provenance research in an attempt to restore works when possible. She added that the restitution was "a moving conclusion to the exhibition of the Gurlitt trove." Some 450 paintings from the collection have been recently exhibited in Bern, Bonn and Berlin.

Citing the exhibitions, she said: "We have Georges Mandel's family to thank that we could show this work in all three exhibitions. In this way we could inform the public about the fate of the Jewish politician Georges Mandel, who was persecuted and imprisoned by the Nazis." 

Mandel was ultimately executed by French fascists in 1944.

Now live
01:33 mins.
DW News | 31.01.2014

Art looted by the Nazis

'Honest and committed efforts'

The Couture work is the fifth painting from the Gurlitt collection to be returned to its legitimate owners, and the sixth to be identified as having been stolen by the Nazis.

Marcel Breuerhart of the Kunstmuseum Bern said, "What is decisive in the end is not the number of restitutions, but the honest and committed efforts in clarifying the origins of the complete works in the Gurlitt collection."

Identification of the painting was made possible by the testimony of Mandel's former partner, who stated after the war that the painting had a small tear in the sitter's chest area when it was stolen by the Nazis. Restoration experts at Germany's Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn were able to find the tear while conducting a rigorous examination of the piece.

Related Subjects

The examination was carried out as part of the Gurlitt Provenance Research Project, which seeks to establish the history of ownership of the works in Gurlitt's possession at the time of his death. The discovery of the works made international headlines when German authorities unexpectedly stumbled upon them during a 2012 tax investigation.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

The chronology of a treasure trove

In September 2010, customs officials stop an elderly man in a train from Zurich to Munich. His name: Cornelius Gurlitt. He is carrying a suspiciously large amount of money with him. Even though that's not forbidden, border guards report him to tax officials. In 2011, a search in his Munich apartment leads to an astonishing discovery.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Nazi-looted art amidst trash

Among junk and expired cans of food littering the residence, the investigators discover thousands of art works which had gone missing during World War II. Behind this invaluable art collection are countless episodes of deep pain and injustice.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Looted art scandal of the century

The art works are presumed to have been looted by Nazis, which confiscated so-called "degenerate art" and stole works from Jewish collectors. Paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Max Liebermann (pictured: "Two Riders on the Beach"), as well as other modern classic paintings, make up the collection. The name Gurlitt was already notorious in Germany's art world.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Confiscated, stolen, sold

Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius Gurlitt's father, was an art dealer during the Nazi era. He traded "degenerate art" for the planned Führer Museum in Linz and sold paintings which had been confiscated from Jewish owners or museums abroad. After the war, he reported that his private collection and all business records had disappeared in the Dresden fire bombing of 1945.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Roars from a lion tamer

In 2011, his son Cornelius Gurlitt sells Max Beckmann's painting, "The Lion Tamer." A 1931 label of the Flechtheim Gallery glued on the back of the painting should have made the art world suspicious. This Jewish art dealer had fled Germany in 1933, leaving many art works behind. The painting was auctioned for 864,000 euros (about $1 million).

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Search for the rightful owners

In November 2013, the seized art collection in Munich is made public. Since 2011, the art historian Meike Hoffmann (pictured) has been in charge of determining where the paintings come from and finding their owners. It's an extremely complicated task, charged with moral, legal and historical questions.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Who do they belong to?

Provenance researchers like Meike Hoffmann search for the origin and history of a painting. Labels on the back of the art works or business records from art dealers and auction houses can provide clues. Cornelius Gurlitt inherited the paintings from his father, yet descendants from Jewish families claim to be the legitimate owners and want them back.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Legal revision

According to German law, the Gurlitt case is clear: The owners' right to reclaim Nazi-looted art expired after 30 years. The Bavarian Ministry of Justice proposed to change the law surrounding this time limitation in cases where people knowingly possessed looted art. The draft is still being examined.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

The pressure is on

The German and Bavarian governments have promised to clear up all aspects of the Gurlitt case, setting up a special task force. Until now, little has happened - only two paintings have been identified as Nazi-looted art. The experts led by Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel are still searching for the origins of the paintings. Some of the alleged heirs are elderly and may not live to see the result.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

'Why wait so long?'

David Toren, 89, is suing Germany and Bavaria. He wants the painting "Two Riders on the Beach" back. It had once belonged to his great-uncle David Friedmann, who was killed by the Nazis in 1942. Descendants of Jewish collectors whose art was confiscated are growing impatient.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

The Gurlitt thriller, part two

New headlines shake the art world. Cornelius Gurlitt's lawyers uncover a series of paintings by Monet, Manet, Corot, Courbet and Renoir in a seemingly abandoned house belonging to the Gurlitt family in Austria. The art works are claimed to be part a private collection. Could these also be Nazi-looted art?

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Gurlitt agrees to return some paintings

Months later, Cornelius Gurlitt strikes a deal with the German government. He is ready to allow all paintings suspected of being Nazi-looted art to be subjected to provenance research. In exchange, he gets back the works seized in 2012. On May 6, Cornelius Gurlitt dies at the age of 81 in Munich. But the thriller goes on.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Collected willed to Swiss museum

Surprisingly, Cornelius Gurlitt bequeaths his collection to the Museum of Fine Arts Bern. He mentions in his will good memories of time spent in Switzerland. The German government greets this last will, but a part of the Gurlitt family feels bypassed.

Gurlitt: An art world thriller

Is Gurlitt’s will valid?

Two of Gurlitt's cousins, who were not mentioned in his will, commissioned a psychiatric report to determine whether he was in his right mind when writing the legal document. The report concludes that he was not; however, the will is not contested. On November 24, the Museum of Fine Arts Bern confirms that it would accept Gurlitt's collection.

js/rt (AFP, AP, dpa)

Every evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.